Posts Tagged ‘Future of Manufacturing’

We return again to the growing importance of additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3-D printing, as its impact upon our country’s industrial base continues to expand.

3-D printing will prove to be one of those “manufacturing revolutions” that, like others before, take time to be transformed – and transformational.  As The Economist notes in a recent (7-1-17) article on the matter, way back in 1733 a fellow by the name of John Kay, a British weaver, invented the “flying shuttle” which allowed for the production of wider pieces of cloth than previously possible.  Because it could be mechanized, it was one of those innovations that displaced workers and gradually paved the way for the Industrial Revolution.  In the early 1900s Ransom Olds came up with the idea of an assembly line to speed up production of the Olds Curved Dash – a decade ahead of Henry Ford.

Fast forward to the 1980s and Taiichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System had a similarly profound effect on modern automotive production, with its “curious methods,” (to quote The Economist), like just-in-time parts delivery and continuous material flow procedures that presaged today’s lean thinking.

In 1983, a fellow named Chuck Hull invented something called stereo lithography.  He’s the founder of 3D Systems, a producer of 3D printers.  We’ve written of these machines’ capabilities before.  They allow a product to be designed CAD-like on a computer screen, and then “printed” as solid objects by building up successive layers of material.  Hull’s invention is just one of many approaches to additive manufacturing.

3D print technology has become popular for producing one-off prototypes since users can tweak their software to create new prototypes, rather than fuss with expensive tooling on the shop floor.  3D printing has proven great at making lightweight, complex shapes in high-value products like planes and autos.  It’s worth noting that GE has spent $1.5 billion on the technology to make jet parts.

To date, 3D printing has been ideal for low-volume production, but less for high-volume, where the technology has been deemed too slow to compete at higher volumes.  Except that’s going to change too.

Recently, shoe manufacturer Adidas has started to use a form of 3D printing called “digital light synthesis” to produce shoe soles, pulling them fully formed from a vat of liquid polymer, note the authors.  Adidas plans to use the technology in two highly-automated new factories to bring a million pairs of shoes to market annually.  So much for low-volume production.

Metal printing is also being affected.   A new technique called “bound-metal deposition” can build metal objects at a rate of 500 cubic inches per hour, compared to the 1 or 2 cubic inches using a typical laser-based metal printer today.

The rise of this technology is only a matter of time.  With increasing wage pressures even in China, the demand from factories is already there.  3D printing is spreading to production lines around the world.  As global supply chains shorten, additive printing a la 3D will be used to customize and tailor a range of products to local tastes and customer demands.  And Mr. Hull and others like him are likely to get a lot better known in the not too distant future.


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Manufacturing employers have for some time lamented the fact that they have plenty of job openings – said to be in the hundreds of thousands nationwide — with a distinct lack of qualified candidates to fill these newer positions in advanced manufacturing.  Today we share the hope of progress as related in a recent Time magazine article (June 12, 2017).  One answer, it would appear, lies in the growing number of community colleges that are teaming up and evolving their curriculum with local businesses to produce job-ready graduates.

One such effort at the Lake Area Technical Institute in South Dakota boasts an 83% retention rate (the national average is 50%) and that 99% of its graduates found jobs or went on to four-year colleges.  Starting salaries for graduates is over the state median, and over 300 areas businesses are participating.

Unfortunately, LATI’s success is not universal.  Community colleges educate about 40% of all U.S. undergraduates according to Time, and fewer than 40% of students graduate.  Meanwhile, states are cutting funding, and with more of the financial burden being placed on students, fewer can afford them.

Fortunately, some states are taking steps to make community colleges more accessible.  Tennessee expanded its free community-college program to accept all adults in the state.  Other states including New York and Oregon are making free or low-cost (with conditions) higher education available.

Most critically, post-recession, these colleges are starting to take a more vocational approach, and are becoming a primary vehicle for workforce training in the country, according to the director of the Center for the Study of Community Colleges.  According to Georgetown University, 11.6 million jobs were created in the post-recession recovery, and all but 100,000 went to people with some college education.

Creative ideas for job-training abound.  In Texas, a community college repurposed a shopping mall to become a high-tech learning lab with over 600 computers.  George Mason Univ. worked with Northern Virginia Community College (second in size only to Indiana’s community college, Ivy Tech) to co-develop curriculum to make it easier for students to transfer from community to four-year college.

Colleges today like LATI “shape coursework around the needs of employers and [rely] on donations of heavy-duty machinery for classrooms.”  They use miniaturized assembly lines, robots, 3-D printers and LED panels to help students learn skills required to secure a well-paying job.  As one student there noted, “Most of my class already has jobs lined up, and it’s a month before graduation.”

Education Policy Researcher Carrie Fisker says “Community colleges are now seen as the primary vehicles for workforce training in this country.

And considering recent reports that half of all retail jobs will be disappearing in the years ahead, it’s news that can’t come too soon.


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future_mfgRecently, Trends e-magazine published a report that threads together the four phases of what they see as the ongoing continuum of the Industrial Revolution.  They defined phase one as the period from about 1770-1870 – think machines, railroads, bridges and intra-national connections.  The second phase was the following century, roughly 1870-1970, and encompassed first the steel revolution and later the mass-production revolution.

Their Third Industrial Revolution “was propelled by the rise of the Digital Age,” which created even more sophisticated automation and connectivity based on microprocessors and the Internet.  That phase started in the 1970s, and Trends editors refer to this as the “installation phase,” where in each revolution’s phase, the big profits are made by tech companies – be they chipmakers or railroad companies.

The newest wave, what they call the Fourth Industrial Revolution is being driven by “extreme automation and connectivity.”  Here, think practically free computing (open-source, cheap tools, etc.) coupled with almost unlimited bandwidth.  The future implications of A.I. (artificial intelligence) and ‘big data’ will only deepen the penetration and effects.  In this new “Deployment Phase,” the big profits will come “from companies imaginatively using the core technology, rather than creating it.  This will occur in everything from healthcare to agribusiness to professional services.

The transformation of manufacturing taking place today has been noted by McKinsey and BCG as the next phase in the digitization of manufacturing and is being driven by four key ‘disruptions’:

  1. The astonishing rise in data volumes, computational power and wide area networks.
  2. The emergence of analytics and business intelligence (B.I.) capabilities.
  3. New forms of human-machine interaction, like touch interfaces and augmented reality.
  4. Improvements in transferring digital instructions to the physical world, like robotics and 3-D printing (of which we’ve written several times here previously).

Trends editors see these as the logical next steps of three prior stages:

  1. Lean in the 1970s
  2. Outsourcing in the 1990s
  3. The automation wave of the 2000s

Together these changes will transform real-world manufacturing – and actually, already are.  In big data, new sensors help gold producers in Africa increase yields by 4%… in advanced analytics, configurators coupled with purchasing data help a big car-maker identify which options customers are willing to pay for, thus reducing possible combinations by three orders of magnitude and reducing costs dramatically…  Man-machine interfaces help a German firm develop systems for order picking that use augmented reality headsets to locate items more quickly and precisely with both hands free, while integrated cameras capture serial and lot numbers that reduce errors by 40%… and finally, digital transfer systems allow a new car company called Local Motors to build cars almost entirely through 3-D printing with designs crowdsourced from its online community, while Fiat and GM use it for rapid prototyping and minimizing time to market.

In other words, the future is already here.


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mfg futureWe have a decided bias towards manufacturing, especially this week where we started on the topic of manufacturing (and education) with Tuesday’s post,  and end the week talking about manufacturing too – this time with a hat tip to the editors of the Wall Street Journal and their June 8, 2016 article on “How to Revitalize Manufacturing.”

The Journal points out the significant impact manufacturing has on the American economy – in fact, like no other.  Among manufacturing, transportation, education, health care, construction, information, retail and professional services (and others)… only manufacturing boasts a return of more than one dollar ($1.08) of “additional transactions” for every dollar spent.  Most of the others weren’t even close.  Manufacturing is truly America’s greatest economic engine.

The Journal’s editors note that “reviving the manufacturing sector won’t be easy… but it’s crucial.”  As Notre Dame engineering professor Steven Schmid points out, “manufacturing and design drive each other… if you lose one, you lose the other too.”

That said, the article proposes nine strategies for getting U.S. manufacturing back on track…

  1. Make exports more valuable. Warren Buffett proposes that exporting companies would earn “certificates” equal to the value of their exports, while importers would have to purchase certificates from exporters.  This creates two benefits: with the cash cushion of those certificates, exporters could offer goods abroad at lower prices, making them more competitive… while imports would become more expensive (to pay for the certificates), making U.S. goods more competitive against imports.
  2. Impose a value added tax. 130 countries already do.  Most countries with VATs waive them on exports at each step of production, imposing them only on imports.
  3. Deal with an overvalued currency. The U.S.’s status as the world’s reserve currency drives demand for dollars and “intrinsically keeps it 10% to 15% above the value of other currencies,” thus making U.S. exports expensive and imports cheaper.
  4. Look at the true cost of offshoring. The Journal notes that if companies took into account the hidden costs of foreign production (transportation, reduced product reliability, undependable supply chains and the need to hold greater inventory in case of delays…) our U.S. made goods would become more cost-competitive.
  5. Purge duplicate regulations. When new rules are imposed, old ones are rarely repealed.  The National Association of Manufacturers estimates manufacturers pay $139 billion annually in regulatory compliance costs.
  6. Look at more than jobs. Head counts too often tend to ignore the benefits of automation.  Investments in tech automation need to be encouraged in order to ensure the U.S. remains a desirable destination for manufacturing in the future.  Tax breaks would help.
  7. Turn community colleges into career factories. Better collaboration between industry and schools would produce more productive graduates ready for the workplace.  A plan pending in Congress would authorize the creation of 25 “manufacturing universities.”  It all helps.
  8. Spend more on manufacturing R&D. Advocates say greater spending on applied research to solve specific problems in manufacturing would bring new products to market and boost manufacturing output.
  9. Create regional centers of expertise. The U.S. has already lost entire industries (think garments and consumer electronics) to other countries.  Regional centers of expertise could leverage existing skills or an industrial legacy, like machining or casting, thereby taking advantage of current talent to seed future manufacturing expansion.

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