It’s been a while since manufacturing last had some luster. Outshined in recent decades by the high tech sector, industrial manufacturing, once the prominent engine of the modern economy, took a back seat – churning away in the shadows, achieving unprecedented economies of scale in places like China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, without much fanfare.
But now, manufacturing’s about to take another turn in the spotlight. As the fruits of the high tech sector, like the miniaturization of computing power, get plucked by industrial enterprises, there’s a major upheaval taking place. By combining sensors, CPUs, and connectivity with heavy industrial equipment, engineering companies like GE and Rolls Royce are giving us smart machines that are aware of the world around them, and can optimize operations all on their own. Data is at the heart of these smart machines, and as they become more widespread, their potential will only be limited by what the frontiers of data science can achieve. Meanwhile, additive manufacturing (3D printing) has slashed the overhead required to manufacture complex parts. It’s a powerful technology that can decentralize manufacturing, eliminating large chunks of the supply chain and reducing costs throughout.
The combination of these technologies is about to unleash some seriously attractive concepts in manufacturing: mass customization, which is the idea of producing products tailored for specific customers cheaply on a massive scale, and next-level automation, which is a step closer to the industrial revolution’s holy grail of completely automated production.
What Happens When You Add 3D Printing + Robots
For the last decade, the potential of 3D printing has excited people across industries. Medical parts, heavy machinery, even consumer electronics can all benefit from the low-barrier, on-demand production that 3D printing brings. But one of the greatest potential impacts of 3D printing is on supply chains.
On the consumer side, the effect is obvious – replacement parts, or even full products could be made at home, once a customer pays for a digital schematic file. But there’s an even more powerful effect in industrial manufacturing.
Getting spare parts to difficult places, or building in harsh terrain is extremely expensive today. Supply chain costs rack up because of logistical complexity, materials sensitivity and environmental challenges. Think about wind turbines in the middle of the ocean, or mountaintop communication stations, or orbiting satellites that need servicing. Bringing parts and labor to those sites is risky and expensive. But within a short period of time, it might not be.
Siemens AG recently showed off a concept of an additive manufacturing “swarm.” Robots that look and can move like spiders each have a 3D printer on them. Working together they could efficiently build large, complex objects on site, given the proper materials. This idea is revolutionary in that it eliminates much of the supply chain altogether. Construction of parts and buildings could theoretically happen where they’re needed. In the case of space exploration, for example, autonomous 3D printing robots could “MacGuyver” parts and structures out of existing available materials, on the lunar surface.
The combination of robotics, autonomous devices, and 3D printing will reshape how supply chains in manufacturing operate. Already reshaping them, though, is the Internet of Things.
The Internet of Things is a well-hyped topic, but the effect of gathering data from sources that previously didn’t exist is starting to pay off in big ways. In manufacturing supply chains, being able to track individual parts through a complex global network, and having that data drive predictive and prescriptive analytics is as close to a crystal ball as the industry has ever seen. As information feeds into big data clouds, analytics are able to better predict and avoid harmful supply chain disruptions. They also provide manufacturers with pinpoint dynamic control of the supply chain. Orders can be rerouted to priority locations at any given moment.
Looking ahead, as manufacturing equipment laden with intelligent IoT sensors become widespread, they will proactively report production issues to other machines in the supply chain, in some cases halfway across the world. These machines will automatically and dynamically reprioritize production, so that orders can be met without interruptions. This level of automation will be intimately tied to the logistics of transport and delivery, so that when all factors are considered, IoT-powered manufacturing networks will optimize production across the globe.
We can expect to see IoT, robots, AI, big data, and 3D printing combine in disruptive ways over the next decade. Manufacturing will be a rich stage for these experiments in combining technologies. As global markets tussle and customer demand jumps from one thing to another, the manufacturing space will become a prominent and crucial area for accommodating the next-gen economy. Out of the shadows and back into the spotlight, it’ll be an exciting area to watch.
Suhas Sreedhar is a manager of supply chain & technology thought leadership, at GT Nexus, an Infor company, a cloud-based network for global trade and supply chain management. Learn more at www.gtnexus.com. He writes frequently on technology, supply chain, the Internet of Things and retail. Sreedhar’s work has been featured in Forbes, IEEE Spectrum, and various industrial blogs and trade publications.