For years, manufacturing has been the backbone of economic development, supporting organizations that cater to consumer demand. And, while it used to be a slow and steady process, manufacturing is no longer limited to outdated industrial assembly lines. Today, new tools and solutions help factories meet greater demand at a lower cost. Some of these advancements include 3–D printing, robotics and big data.
Speed and design freedom
3–D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of creating physical items by stacking materials such as plastic or resin in very thin layers. Although more than 30 years old, 3–D printing is still shaking up the manufacturing industry.
One of the primary benefits of additive manufacturing is that it enables companies to create complex and custom designs. Students at the Delft University of Technology are printing 3–D steel bikes on demand, surgeons in Mumbai, India are practicing on 3–D printed models of human body parts and, Katjes, a popular German candy manufacturer, is producing custom 3–D gummies.
According to 3DHubs, another one of the main advantages of additive manufacturing is the speed at which parts can be produced compared to traditional manufacturing models. Now, designers can create prototypes in a matter of hours, whereas it used to take days. Having a faster turnaround during product development streamlines the overall manufacturing process. And, being able to verify that a design fits your needs ahead of time mitigates risks, saving time and money.
As Figure 1 shows, the U.S. 3–D printer manufacturing industry grew from $4.5 billion in 2014 to $7 billion in 2016. It's predicted to reach $11 billion in 2018 and change $17.2 billion in 2020. It’s important to keep an eye on the growing use cases that will arise as the process becomes more affordable and accessible.
What could you achieve with 3–D technology? Perhaps you could supply aerospace companies with custom engine parts, or help physical therapists equip patients with specialized prosthetics. The goal is to one day affordably print specific designs on demand and in large quantities, providing better products, reducing excessive waste and inventory, and increasing efficiency.
The International Federation of Robotics reports that 1.3 million industry robots will enter factories by 2018. This isn’t surprising since advanced robotic systems are able to work faster and more accurately than humans, while also being able to handle dangerous materials — resulting in higher quality and safety on the floor.
For instance, Soft Robotics recently introduced the world’s squishiest robot inspired by octopus tentacles. It can conform to a multitude of objects more accurately than ordinary, hard robots.
Even more impressive is the new trend of collaborative robots — highly adaptable and flexible “cobots” that work alongside human teammates. These machines are designed to learn as they work, increasing accuracy and productivity so the human counterparts can focus less on repetitive assembly tasks and more on strategizing. For example, teammates at Chinese delivery giant STO Express work alongside dedicated, self-charging courier robots that help them sort 200,000 packages a day.
According to MIT Technology Review, another trend to watch is robots sharing knowledge with other robots. Thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT), connected machines can send and receive notifications, operation details and reports via the internet. This reduces downtime and increases production.
From assembling and welding to cutting and polishing, robotics in manufacturing are providing greater output with consistent quality and handling the tasks that are too difficult or unsafe for human workers.
As you start to integrate these technology trends into your business, take advantage of big data analytics to pinpoint what works for you and what doesn’t. For example, software and sensors help you precisely track the manufacturing process from start to finish to identify patterns and weak points. Using predictive data analytics will help you know exactly when updates need to be made, when machines are expected to break down, when the market will be at its peak and how much inventory is needed for the following quarters. Additional benefits include:
- Reduced order-to-delivery time
- Improved customer satisfaction
- Faster reaction time and repairs
- Real-time production accuracy
In order to achieve this sort of visibility across the manufacturing process, you need to decide what type of data you want to monitor. Having too much data or irrelevant data will only detract from your goals.
Keep the momentum going.
The manufacturing industry is experiencing a technology-driven revolution as new, intelligent tools and solutions continue to emerge. These advancements help manufacturers create higher-quality goods and keep up with evolving consumer expectations.