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2020: Future of Manufacturing Technology

Dec. 26, 2019
Recent predictions have identified 2020 as the year technology gains critical mass. What does it mean for worker safety?

Technology is an ever-evolving field, constantly mixing in new iterations and innovations to create exciting new opportunities for today's manufacturers to reimagine their operations. In some instances, new technologies open the door for progressive manufacturers release truly innovative offerings of their own.

The big question? Which technologies warrant the often-significant resource investments required to navigate the ongoing digital transformation and embrace what Industry 4.0 promises.

Let's take a deeper look at what's going on with a few of the key technologies:

Advancing robotics and automation

Smart manufacturers are efficient by design. This is where robotics and automation thrive. And, according to the Robotic Industries Association, manufacturers see the potential. Specifically, robot orders are up 5.2% through the third quarter of 2019, with 23,894 robotic units ordered, a value of $1.3 billion.

The continued trend toward collaborative environments is playing a significant role. Unlike historical deployments where one or two processes often consumed a disproportionate share of the project cost, collaborative robots (or cobots) allow for incremental investment. As a result, manufacturers can automate one process at a time.

Cobots are "easier to digest, faster to deploy and generate returns quicker," says Joe Campbell, Universal Robots' senior manager of strategic marketing and applications. "The enabler is the ability to work side-by-side with skilled operators."

According to Campbell, there has been a noticeable uptick in the number of small and medium sized manufacturing companies embracing collaborative robots.

"The difference is that in many cases the programming is taking place by the line operator. The business impact in these companies is significant because everyone is struggling to hire, which hits these companies even harder," he says. "We are regularly seeing collaborative robots go in right at or below the annual cost of an average manufacturing worker."

The boost in the availability of plug-and-play, pre-engineered peripherals is also making a significant difference. "Industry focused companies are building products to seamlessly integrate with robots in a matter that strips out the time, cost and risk commonly associated with robots," he says. "This trend is going to continue into deeper application kits, making collaborative robots more attractive."

As a prime example, Robotiq developed a software package that allows manufacturers to easily set up complex sanding patterns on contoured surfaces. "It is not just sanding head," says Campbell. "It is the means to apply it efficiently. They have reduced a multi-day programming operation down to a twenty-minute task."

As another example, Vectis Automation developed a full welding kit including a software process layer geared for a welder rather than an engineer to put the robot into action. "It is a matter of side-stepping the need for a skilled robot engineer for every application," says Campbell.

The overarching trend in automation, according to Rockwell Automation CEO Blake Moret, is the convergence of IT and OT technology.

"It is causing organizations to structure themselves differently in order to take advantage of the integration," he says. "When people talk about digital transformation, it is happening throughout the enterprise. We are seeing some very interesting things where the IT organization is taking on a different role—placing new demands on organizational infrastructure. You still need smart devices and the final mile to turn the motor and land the I/O, but productivity is provided with an increased amount of data driven software."

As automation makes its way into new spaces including life sciences and the electric vehicle, the efficient use of data is going to prove significant, explains Moret.

"The wrong way to do it is to land it all in a database where you have to go fishing for insights afterwards," he says. "To be able to have scalable solutions that process just enough data that could be right at the edge or in the cloud. Your workforce needs to be comfortable interacting with the system, making simplification important. We need to drive the complexity out." 

Embracing additive manufacturing and 3D printing

The 3D printing industry was worth $3 billion in 2013 and grew to $7 billion in 2017. By 2025, the market is forecast to account for more than $20 billion in spend, according to GlobalData. There are a few key evolutions taking place in this space that are fueling the ongoing growth trajectory.

Most notably is the introduction of new materials and software advances, both of which are clearing paths to creative new applications. For instance, as bioprinting and digital anatomy continue to mature, the ability to seamlessly switch between materials to benefit from differing properties. While current advances continue to improve the ability to streamline prototyping, perhaps the most encouraging outcome is the ability to better visualize the future potential for mass customization.

Looking ahead, HP 3D Printing and Digital Manufacturing Chief Technologist Paul Benning offers four predictions around how 3D printing will further transform the manufacturing landscape in 2020:

  • Automated assembly will arrive, with industries seamlessly integrating multi-part assemblies including combinations of 3D printed metal and plastic parts. There's not currently a super printer that can do all things intrinsically, like printing metal and plastic parts, due to factors such as processing temperatures. However, as automation increases, there's a vision from the industry for a more automated assembly setup where there is access to part production from both flavors. The auto sector is a great example of where automated assembly could thrive on the factory floor. Benefits of an automated assembly for industrial applications include printing metals into plastic parts, building parts that are wear-resistant and collect electricity, adding surface treatments, and even building conductors or motors into plastic parts. The industry isn't ready to bring this technology to market just yet, but it's an example of where 3D printing is headed beyond 2020. 
  • Data payloads for 3D printed parts will be coded into the surface texture. It's a competitive advantage to be able to build interesting things onto surfaces. Something that HP has experimented with is coding digital information into a surface texture. By encoding information into the texture itself, manufacturers can have a bigger data payload than just the serial number. This is one way to tag a part either overtly or covertly so that both people and machines are able to read it based on the shape or orientation of the bumps. HP can also put hundreds of copies of a serial number spread across the surface of a part so that it's both hidden and universally apparent.
  • Universities and training programs will build a new set of thought processes to liberate designers from old thinking and allow them to tap into technologies of the future. 3D printing's biggest impact to manufacturing job skills lies on the design side. There is a world of designers who have been trained in and grown up with existing technologies like injection molding. Because of this, people unintentionally bias their design toward legacy processes and away from technologies like 3D printing. To combat this, educators of current and soon-to-be designers must adjust the thought process that goes into designing for production given the new technologies in the space. We recognize this will take some time, particularly for universities that are starting up degree programs. New software design tools will guide designers to make better use of 3D printing in manufacturing. One example of this is Oregon State University where they're using 3D printing to design and build combustion, electric and driverless cars.
  • Advances in software and data management will drive improved system management and part quality leading to better customer outcomes. Companies within the industry are creating API hooks to build a fluid ecosystem for customers and partners. HP is expanding upstream to use data to enable ideal designs and optimized workflows for Multi Jet Fusion factories. This data comes from design files, mobile devices, or scanning technology and is applied to improve production efficiency and deliver individualized products purpose-built for their end customers.

Working with wearables

The mention of wearables often recalls a Star Trek like image. However, not all wearables are futuristic in nature—nor are they all gimmicky single-use technologies.

When looking at how wearables can positively impact the manufacturing space, the key is to move beyond the formfactor to focus intently on the application.

"Wearables are not restricted to eye-based units, with today's smart watches capable of monitoring medical metrics serving as a perfect example," says Parsable CEO Lawrence Whittle. "These smart devices are coming down in price, and with a little creativity they can prove valuable in a lot of ways. For instance, when a wearable detects fatigue, it can ping a supervisor to say that you need to make sure an employee is okay."

The goal with wearables is to identify applications capable of enhancing worker safety and production efficiency. The right formfactors can augment and enhance the human's ability work. Of course, companies need to be conscious of their use since some of the features like voice recognition are not yet optimized for noisy industrial environments.

"As each year goes by the ability to connect workers is clearly there. VR and AR are proven use cases for training. What we believe is the valuable role for wearables is around work execution. If you go back to the sensor on a piece of machinery to know if its overheating. You can have sensors on humans to understand better how they are augmenting work," says Whittle. "They can play a key role in detecting what the environment is like including the temperature, smoke in the air or any number of factors that could impact people or processes."

Recognizing growing need for 5G

As the list of technologies impacting today's production environments multiplies including the expansion of the Industrial Internet of Things and the number of connected devices, the bandwidth demands are intensifying as data creation and utilization constantly compounds. The latest generation of network technology, 5G satisfies the need for high speed, reliable and secure connectivity that supports a new highly mobile reality. With speeds of up to 100 gigabits per second, 5G is roughly 100 times faster than 4G.

Imagine for instance, a drone transporting a device within the facility entering a dead zone and suddenly losing its connection. While built-in software programming can provide some levels of redundancy and consistency to keep the drone in flight until it reestablishes a connection, the time in the dead zone could understandably have significant negative consequences.

While the U.S. has yet to realize its benefits, the technology needed for 5G exists with firms like Ericsson, Qualcomm and Huawei leading the way in its development. Unlike previous generations, 5G leverages multiple input multiple output digital technology using targeted beams to follow users, making it possible to consistently improve coverage and capacity. Of course, its widespread availability remains questionable at best including the need for extensive investments in new network installations and sweeping software upgrades.

Continued IoT investments

As the pipeline connecting and collecting mountains of data from an entire spectrum of equipment and devices, IoT continues steady progression as more companies embark on their journey. 

According to the PwC's 2019 Internet of Things Survey, manufacturers are optimistic about IoT with 93% believing its benefits exceed its risks. In fact, 68% plan to increase their investment over the next two years. 

"Manufacturers need to know that if they haven't already implemented IoT, they're already behind their competitors — 81% of industrial manufacturers have applied IoT to increase operational efficiency and almost two-thirds plan to increase their IoT investment over the next two years," says Rob Mesirow, leader of the PwC Connected Solutions/IoT practice. "It's also important to note the most popular IoT use cases so manufacturers can better guide their own deployment plans. The main use cases are in logistics (50%), supply chain (47%), employee and customer experience (46%), and predictive maintenance (41%)." 

However, Mesirow notes there are cybersecurity concerns when implementing IoT. Specifically, more executives in manufacturing are extremely concerned about IoT and cybersecurity than in any other industry PwC surveyed. "With this knowledge, manufacturers should look closely at the IoT devices and partners they're considering to ensure they aren't implementing poorly secured devices or networks," he says. "A few approaches to consider are better managing ecosystems and developing more robust data management policies." 

Mesirow tells IndustryWeek he was surprised more manufacturers hadn't implemented IoT to help prevent equipment from malfunctioning (44%), especially as the cost of these devices continues to go down.

"Any time equipment on the floor goes down, it can drastically impact operations and even bring them to a halt," he says. "Since manufacturing relies so heavily on the equipment, I thought more manufacturers would have already either implemented IoT to track for repairs or planned to implement the tech, but only 27% of manufacturing executives expect to do so within two years." 

About the Author

Peter Fretty | Managing Editor

As a highly experienced journalist, Peter Fretty regularly covers advances in manufacturing, information technology, and software. He has written thousands of feature articles, cover stories, and white papers for an assortment of trade journals, business publications, and consumer magazines.

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