Digital Revolution is Changing the Face of Manufacturing

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Call it technology disruption. Call it the New Industrial Revolution. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but change is underway in the manufacturing world and digital technology is the driving force behind it. The impact on the manufacturing industry will be significant. The future will no longer be dictated by stretched-out global supply chains connected by distant factories, but instead by small, nimble manufacturers deploying cutting-edge tools and new materials.

For large companies it will bring a new arsenal of tools they will use to build smarter, leaner factories and design more innovative new products, materials and processes. Smaller companies will reap the rewards of plummeting prices and gain access to better manufacturing equipment and design tools that will even the playing field and enable them to compete with their bigger brethren.

All these changes are driven by the convergence of technology trends: the low cost and accessibility of Big Data associated with cloud computing; the tumbling cost of electronic sensors, microprocessors, and other components used to make machines more adept; and advances in software and communications technology that make it possible to manage manufacturing with a new level of precision and enable new forms of collaboration.

Let’s take a look at a few of these game-changing technology trends and how they will impact the future of manufacturing.

Super-cheap microprocessors, electronics and sensors. The emergence of very inexpensive microprocessors, components and sensors is drastically changing the way manufacturing facilities operate as well as how they are managed. Tiny sensors embedded inside manufacturing equipment now shoots out real-time alerts that notify manufacturing engineers—via text messages and emails—when there is any type of glitch that affects production.

Engineers can assess issues, such as a power outage, remotely by pulling up animated schematic maps on their iPads, laptops or home computers. Though factory equipment will typically go through an automatic reboot following an outage, managers must monitor the process to assure that the machinery restarts in the proper sequence, avoiding costly production downtime.

Manufacturing mangers also have access to real-time data alerts about potential problems coming from the equipments’ embedded sensors, enabling them to study the numbers to find ways to boost production efficiency and improve performance.

Additive manufacturing. Another technology disruption involves a new method of fabricating things. Additive manufacturing, also called 3D printing, is the process of making a 3D object of virtually any shape from a digital model. Falling prices of 3D printers and the introduction of newer materials mean that nearly anything, from shoes to airplane parts, can be made without the cost overhead and time constraints of traditional production-line manufacturing.

While the impact of the technology is hard to gauge this early, it will clearly be significant as it opens the door for anyone who can create a design to become a manufacturer. It poses new challenges as well. Since the digital CAD model of an object is used directly in additive manufacturing, companies will become more vulnerable to intellectual property (IP) theft, just as the entertainment and music business has been affected by easily copied movies and music.

Global Effects

The effects of these changes will most certainly trickle down to affect the economies of all manufacturing nations. Boston Consulting Group published a report that predicts that as a result of new manufacturing technologies, as much as 30% of America’s exports from China could be domestically produced by 2020.

President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union address called out additive manufacturing, saying it “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make just about everything,” and has asked for $1 billion to create network of as many as 15 manufacturing-innovation institutes around the country. One such center, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) in Youngstown, Ohio, is open. Its goal is to transition the technology to the mainstream U.S. manufacturing sector.

While these technology trends most likely won’t boost the number of manufacturing jobs, it will spur the growth of highly specialized microfactories that will be capable of making old things in new ways. It will enable smaller companies and upstarts to make products to-order and websites to offer one-off or highly customized products to patrons craving more and more personalized products.

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