It feels like predicting the long-term influence and consequences of technological innovation is getting harder to do — especially for manufacturing companies that live and die according to their ability to innovate, maintain a clean and lean operation and deploy new technologies sooner.
To better understand the relationship between tomorrow’s technologically advanced factories and supply chains — and today’s manufacturers — we need to explore some of the changes coming down the pipeline.
Preparing Workers for the Future Through Simulation Technology
Manufacturers will soon use one advanced technology to equip and train their workers to interface with others. Propelled by a $2.5 million grant from the NSF’s Human-Technology Frontier Program, researchers from MIT and Indiana University are exploring ways to use augmented reality to do two things for factories:
– Train employees on major infrastructural, layout and technological changes in advance of these investments coming online in factories
– Train assembly and maintenance employees more quickly and effectively on delicate, technology-intensive tasks, including power transmission and motor repair, precision fabrication and control panel assembly
Augmented reality (AR) is the technology that superimposes digital constructs over the real world. The resulting image appears either on a wearable heads-up display or a stationary monitor. The goal is to shorten the learning curve as factories and shop floors bring new types of advanced mechanical and digital tools into the workplace.
Tech experts expect AR and VR technology will eventually reduce the amount of human effort it takes to oversee manufacturing operations. This advancement will come at the expense of some semi-skilled jobs, but it will also create opportunity in brand-new fields like robotics and advanced engineering. A big part of manufacturing’s current revolution involves the automation of some types of material handling and assembly equipment, for instance.
Technology frees up “human capital” and allows ever-smaller teams to monitor the operation of even large assembly plants. Some companies have even achieved “lights-out manufacturing” at their industrial locations. These are plants that can operate autonomously for days, weeks or even months at a time.
Connecting Equipment and Locations With the IoT
Connectivity is everything these days — especially in complex manufacturing, material handling and product development processes. The Internet of Things is one of the major technological breakthroughs giving managers and decision-makers in manufacturing more granular information about every process, including the movement of products and the real-time condition of equipment out on the floor.
But which problems does the IoT aim to solve? Among other things, this more complete connectivity between equipment, personnel and decision-makers means factories everywhere will soon be able to operate at even higher levels of efficiency and reduce waste even more successfully.
For example, Honda maintains assembly plants in the UK, some of which only keep a stockpile of parts and raw materials for a single hour of assembly time at once — that’s nearly as lean as you can get.
However, maintaining that edge requires access to real-time data at every level of every process throughout the facility. The IoT offers greater insight into the movement of time-sensitive freight, the condition of in-house manufacturing equipment and, thanks to advanced data collection, often provides warning of bottlenecks, labor problems, spikes or troughs in consumer demand and other useful information.
Some industries have unique needs that make them especially well-suited to adopting IoT technology in their national or global supply chains.
For example, the steel industry is extremely diverse. Food and beverage manufacturing alone uses more than 300 grades of stainless steel, thanks to its resistances and antimicrobial qualities. Relying on human foresight to keep the flow of so many critical resources running smoothly is no simple matter, especially at a time when aluminum and steel are politically fraught thanks to tariffs and the changing face of global commerce.
Decentralizing R&D and Product Development
Securing world-class talent is one of the biggest challenges in manufacturing and product development today. In a global economy, it’s increasingly common for research and development teams — engineering and scientific talent — to be more geographically dispersed. But for the R&D departments of the near future, that might not be a problem.
Solving the challenge of bringing together remote, high-caliber talent to focus on product development and resolving operational and manufacturing problems comes down to several technologies:
– Collaborative scientific programs — Platforms like Science Exchange represent an up-and-coming industry nearly in their own right. Just as there are marketplaces for semi-skilled professionals to offer their services, including Amazon’s Mechanical Turks, Science Exchange and similar efforts provide a way for engineers and scientists to significantly broaden their reach and remotely lend their talents to companies that don’t have the resources to maintain a full-time R&D team on-premises.
– Robots and 3D printing — Given the challenges and time-sensitive nature of bringing technological and engineering talent to bear on product development, robotics and 3D printing are allowing much faster prototyping and more successful trial-and-error periods. It means accelerating the pace of successful product launches and quicker breakthroughs in material sciences and other fields.
Accelerating product development is already a priority among most major companies that engage in manufacturing — and analysts expect R&D spending to continue rising between now and 2022. That means factories have to be nimble and able to access talent and new ideas from anywhere to keep up with the pace.
Applying these technologies to tomorrow’s factories and supply chains means a more holistic and overall better-informed approach to maintaining supply lines and the pace of manufacturing.
It also means a company that’s less susceptible to all manner of global events and politicking they don’t control, but still require the means to react to effectively and intelligently.
Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes.