The manufacturing industry is experiencing a renaissance, led by new technologies that are unleashing greater productivity, facilitating novel business models, and unlocking new business value. Three-dimensional (3D) printing (also known as additive manufacturing) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are often cited as the critical advances spurring manufacturing’s recent transformation. Beyond these, however, manufacturers are adopting a wide variety of emerging technologies that will change production speed and accuracy, while also improving the products. Five of these technologies are highlighted below, each with a brief technology overview and use case.
Edge computing describes a paradigm in which data processing and analysis occurs in the extremes of a network—in its devices, machines, sensors, and distributed servers. Unlike cloud computing, which pushes data to centralized and often shared computing resources, edge computing filters data first, determining which to discard, which to process at the edge, and which to push to the cloud. Its advantages include reduced cloud overload, because much of the data that currently reaches the cloud is of inconsequential value; decreased processing latency—especially for data that requires near-immediate analysis, such as in dynamic workflow adjustments; and protection against centralized points of failure. In manufacturing, edge computing will improve factory floor safety and help increase predictive maintenance capabilities, among other benefits.
For example, Cisco is partnering with robotics company Fanuc to greatly reduce unplanned maintenance (noted as zero downtime) in industrial robots. Edge computing allows Fanuc robots to self-monitor their data streams on the factory floor. This data is then dynamically analyzed for better prediction of wear and tear on parts, with edge data collectors pushing relevant information to the cloud. If needed, servicing is automatically scheduled and parts are preemptively shipped so that repairs can be made during regularly scheduled maintenance activities.
Augmented reality (AR) is the superimposing of computer-generated graphics, data, or sound onto the real world, enhancing the AR user’s experience of his or her surroundings. The advantage of AR is that the user’s ability to interact with the real world is not temporarily impaired, unlike with virtual reality (VR), which offers a completely immersive experience. AR technology is commonly displayed on smartphones or tablets that use sensors and global positioning system (GPS) capabilities to provide users with position-sensitive information. In manufacturing, head-mounted displays and eyeglasses are quickly becoming the hands-free modes of choice for displaying AR-enriched information.
Aircraft manufacturer Boeing is experimenting with AR-guided training and manufacturing, and its results have been encouraging. In an experiment, Boeing trainees using AR-animated instructions displayed on a tablet outperformed other groups, achieving 30% greater speed with 90% greater accuracy on their first attempt to assemble an aircraft wing. Boeing is also piloting the use of AR with smart glasses for wire harness assembly. Overall, errors have declined from 6 to 0% and assembly times have been reduced by 30%.
Collaborative robots (Cobots)
Advances in machine dexterity, safety technologies, and navigation are resulting in greater human-robot collaboration in factories. Humans are working in closer proximity to robots than ever before thanks to force and power limitation, which reduces the force a robot exerts when it comes in contact with a human, and improvements in artificial intelligence and machine vision. Safety cages are no longer required for many industrial robots. Other key cobot features spurring increased use include trainability (some cobots are directed through human hand guidance rather than programming) and the ability to perform numerous tasks (rather than 1 or 2 dedicated tasks) on the factory floor. The future for cobots includes greater connectivity and cloud computing, which will allow them to learn from shared knowledge, and social programming for more seamless human-machine interaction.
Automotive manufacturers have been early cobot adopters, with BMW and Volkswagen leading the way. BMW, for instance, uses cobots to help workers insulate and water-seal car doors. Cobots are also used to insert rubber plugs into holes in a vehicle’s chassis. Volkswagen, similarly, is using cobots to help assemble difficult-to-reach parts. In both cases, repeated worker injuries to wrists and hands spurred the cobot investments, proving that robots are not necessarily job killers; rather, many help reduce workplace injury and improve overall factory safety.
Nanomanufacturing refers to both the processes for manufacturing nanomaterials (defined as a material composed of units of 1 to 1,000 nanometers in size) at a cost-effective scale and to the nanomaterials these processes produce. Experts position nanomanfacturing as a major technological revolution akin to electricity and digital technology, which will have widespread societal and economic impacts. Innovations in nanomaterials and nano-enabled products either are affecting or will affect virtually every industry. Product improvements include faster computers, strengthened and sensorized road pavement and concrete, and targeted cancer treatment therapies. Implications for manufacturing are twofold: in the short term, nano-enabled products are reducing manufacturing costs by contributing to lower-cost, more-durable machine parts, fabrication materials, and coatings; long term, nanomanufacturing will make many products currently produced obsolete, as significantly improved versions enter the market.
One developing nanomanufacturing application is for lithium-ion batteries that power many portable electronic devices and electric vehicles. Nano-improved lithium-ion batteries have the potential to accelerate battery recharging times and greatly extend the length of battery use between charges. This boost in battery power will have a dramatic effect on consumer purchase decisions, as a primary factor restraining the electric vehicle market is perceived limitations on travel duration and range.
Distributed manufacturing describes the use of geographically dispersed manufacturing facilities to achieve optimal logistics costs and higher-quality products. Distributed manufacturing is not a technology as much as it is a model enabled by advances in information technology. For enterprises, distributed manufacturing offers an asset-light option for manufacturing goods, as it can be much less expensive to contract production to local manufacturers than to ship items to their destination. For manufacturers, distributed manufacturing provides a way to operate closer to capacity, making better use of manufacturing assets. For entrepreneurs, a distributed manufacturing network creates a community among designers, engineers, and specialty manufacturers that can help bring products to fruition.
SyncFab and makexyz are among the entrepreneurial networks that are connecting product designers with production capabilities. SyncFab’s concept is to create a highly localized ecosystem for on-demand design and manufacturing. While SyncFab’s goal is to forge local communities, makexyz provides easy access to a network of global 3D printers, so that designers can quickly deliver a 3D-printed product to a remote client, bypassing the need for extensive shipping and other time delays.
The Future of Manufacturing
While 3D printing and the IoT are certainly breathing new life into the industrial sector, other next-generation manufacturing technologies are emerging and will significantly disrupt today’s manufacturing practices. The key for manufacturers will be to create strategies broad enough to adapt to impending transformational shifts on multiple fronts.