For most of 2016, manufacturers have been talking about a few technologies that they expect will change the game forever. Some already have. By utilizing the newest advances in information technology and complex manufacturing, the modern factory floor is highly connected, highly adaptable, automated and more efficient than ever before. Let’s check out the trends that got us here:
IoT and Smart Manufacturing – The Internet of Things is the one manufacturing trend you can’t stop hearing about in 2016, and for good reason. The IoT market is expected to reach nearly $6 billion by 2019 because the benefits of connecting every machine in the facility over the web are difficult to ignore. It goes beyond one machine talking to another – it’s one machine talking to every other machine, to sensors, computers and even the people that operate them, all in one focused effort to increase productivity. The vast amount of data collected by every point in the network (General Electric has a network with 20,000 sensors producing 400 data points per second to build wind turbines) provides more precision and insight into every detail on the manufacturing process. How much voltage is Machine A using to produce this product, how does that figure impact Machine B and what does that relationship mean for the effectiveness of the entire factory floor? Stanley Black & Decker implemented the IoT into a factory in Mexico and saw equipment effectiveness increase 24 percent, labor utilization 10 percent and throughput by 10 percent. Figures like those are why manufacturers can’t stop talking about the Internet of Things.
Predictive Analytics and Big Data – Data can be gathered and analyzed faster and more efficiently than ever before. What does this mean for manufacturers? With new software and sensors, predictions and adjustments can be made at every step of the production process. Smarter machines can now predict when they are about to fail, so maintenance can be scheduled on-demand rather than periodically when it isn’t truly needed. Machines can even track and forecast demand, and adjust production accordingly. Because each part of the production process is connected, one small change in the line is received by the whole system.
Augmented and Virtual Reality – Rapid advances in computer vision and information technology are allowing manufacturers to consume real-time information at the point of use more effectively than ever before. Operators follow simple text, graphical or audio cues through their tablets and phones – even glasses or goggles – to perform complex tasks on the factory floor. Advanced computer vision technology can even assess the performance of these tasks and notify the operator of any risks to timing or quality. The technology is finding its way into every part of the manufacturing process: maintenance response, tracking inventory, operational safety and complex tasks on an assembly line.
Advanced Robotics – New robotic technology is allowing manufacturers to program robots to perform nearly any task imaginable. The strides taken in user-friendly operation have also allowed manufacturers to double down on collaborative robots, to help people accomplish tasks that the robots can’t quite do themselves. Vast flexibility, refined user experience platforms, lower costs and man-machine collaboration has opened the door for smaller manufacturers to participate as well. This has helped push automation to the forefront of advanced manufacturing as the factories try to keep up with demand.
3D Printing – The hottest new tech isn’t exactly new – 3D printing technology is over 30 years old – but it is enjoying a huge surge as techniques in additive manufacturing have advanced to such a degree that manufacturers are exploring production possibilities never considered before. From printing metal to producing complicated parts with more precision than previously possible, advanced manufacturing projects like rocket engines, jet turbines and high-tech medical equipment are now possible at a fraction of the cost versus traditional methods. Speed, flexibility and a lower tool and material footprint has drastically reduced the design-to-manufacturing cycle, with a lot of room left for improvement.
As more and more organizations invest in these key technologies they will push the boundaries of advanced manufacturing to build exciting new products and equipment that were only a dream yesterday. They’ll be doing it much more efficiently, too.