The last three centuries have seen the manufacturing industry experience significant progress. To truly appreciate how far we have come and see where we are going, take a quick glance at the past:Pre-industrial revolution industries were almost entirely labour based. Regardless of how strenuous and repetitive the tasks were, they were still carried out by the workers.
Several engineers thus started developing precision machines and tools to be implemented in various industries. Resulting in efficient productions, a greater output could be achieved in lesser time, with arguably lesser input required. As a result, costs of goods would significantly fall and also were of better quality (due to the elimination of human errors).
This set in motion a pursuit of constant improvements; the technology continues to evolve to further improve efficiency,or altogether newfunctionalities being introduced.The invention of computers also greatly aided the development of industrial technology almost exponentially. Technology which would take decades, if not centuries, to develop, are conceived in less than a decade.
First a mention of the current setup in most manufacturing units – electronic machines –a fixture of various industries for over two decades now. While older generation of machines were automated, they were not computerized or electronic (the automation was a result of a hydraulic, mechanical, or pneumatic setup). Newer generations of machines are also equipped with high-precision equipments, such as lasers. Lasers allow for greater accuracy in measurements and cutting of materials (metals, wood, etc.), and sometimes function as stand-alone production machines themselves, like those by Boss Laser.
These machines are gradually reducing their dependence on humans and becoming more automated, while improving efficiency and production value (quantity and quality of goods). The figure below shows after the start of the millennium, the amount of labour required is falling, yet production is increasing – primarily due to the introduction of machines.
While there are many achievements in the progress of industrial machines and technologies thus far, this article onlydiscussesthe most recent significant developments: 3-D printing, and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
The past few years have seen a morphing of the manufacturing process – through the introduction of 3-D Printing (3DP). Essentially, a material (plastic, metal, rubber) is liquefied and passed through the nozzle of the printer, creating patterns and shapes as designed on the computer. Often, these designs are created through a CAD (Computer Aided Design) software. 3DP allows for better control over the shape, as well as the functionality of the finished product.
Where previously several small products were required to be produced separately, then combined to form the larger product, 3DP can ‘print’ the larger product directly. This allows for faster production, and greater quality and durability.Several companies, such as Rolls Royce and McClaren-Honda (Formula 1 team), have already implemented 3DP in their production process. A study found that the entire airline industry could save up to US$2 billion annually if they utilized 3DP to produce RMO (Repair, Maintenance, Operations) parts of airplanes.
Not only does it produce better goods, 3DP also has started to disrupt the way supply chains, and businesses to a large extent, operate. 3D printers are constantly being upgraded, further reducing the production time, while allowing for greater quantity. This means that supply will become cheaper, which will allow for the cost of goods to fall even further than the levels experienced through automation only. In addition, as 3DP allows for goods to be created faster, manufacturers will not have to make them in advance and store them, thereby reducing inventory costs (as well as potential losses if the goods are never sold).
Another benefit of 3DP is mass customization. Most of us are familiar with the concept of mass production, and mass customization is somewhat along the same lines – large quantities of an item are produced, each one customized. This would not have been possible with only automation, where all the products would have been identical and rather than being a perfect fit for the customers’ needs, they would have just been the best fit. Several companies have built a multi-million dollar business, through 3DP; Invisalign produces 3D printed teeth alignment devices to completely customize every single device.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Self-learning machines
The Internet has been making its own strides, and industrial technology has also reaped some benefits. Most recently, we are experiencing a rise in Internet of Things (IoT) and the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The IoT is a paradigm which allows devices, with network connectivity, to connect to other devices and share data; AI refers to machines displaying intelligence which is usually attributed to humans. As machines become more intelligent, they will be capable of learning processes independently – termed machine learning.
As machines continue accessing data from themselves and through the IoT (other machines in other production units, for example), the machines can ‘learn’ and ‘improve’ the process. Potential uses of such application include quality control and failure detection, thus contributing to improved productivity and efficiency. A study found machines with AI capabilities can reduce material consumption by up to 4 percent, while improving production capacity by up to 20 percent.
In addition, AI can also help keep the machines maintain the optimal production levels through constant self-monitoring, and scheduling repairs as required. Currently, industrial equipment maintenance is based on a fixed schedule, often disregarding whether the machine actually requires maintenance or not. This results in unnecessary maintenance and higher costs. As factories are now installing sensors and networking them to one another, these devices will monitor and analyze the situation, and only recommend service as required.
The development of technology over the past couple of decades has been at a rate greater than the growth in the previous two centuries. It would not be wrong to say that technology is growing exponentially, and the manufacturing and industrial technologies are also growing at a similar rate. From here on, machines themselves will create the path for progression, rather than depend on human programming and intervention, after the introduction of AI and self-learning machines.It remains to be seen where industrial technology will be along this path, though one would wager that the development in the next century will far exceed all our progress in the past millennium.