Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a two-part series examining three leading-edge manufacturing technologies. Read part one on advanced sensors: Leading-Edge Manufacturing Technologies.
Technology is transforming the manufacturing industry.
Imagine a manufacturing floor saturated with 3-D printers overseen by robotics capable of gathering data through advanced sensors and then transmitting that information digitally to inform other systems of impending issues or failures, updating other machines on the status of upstream production, and coordinating the flow of activities across hundred of nodes of activity simultaneously. This type of manufacturing floor is quite possible and, therefore, it is essential to understand the capabilities of these technologies.
With the accelerating trend toward automation, industrial robots are gaining popularity in the manufacturing industry. For example, within 2008 to 2012, industrial robot sales increased by an average of 9 percent per year.
Industrial robots are capable of operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are automatically controlled, reprogrammable and repeat processes with accurate precision. Many are afraid robotics will take away manufacturing jobs; however, robots were created by humans to perform tasks that have been deemed dangerous or repetitive. Hence, the jobs being replaced are often of a nature less desirable or appropriate for humans. When robots are created for jobs previously performed by humans, a net benefit is a quantum leap in productivity.
For example, Japanese company, Mori Seiki, built a completely-automated factory in Davis, Ca. It has been described as being so advanced that machines do everything and what they are making is other machines. The facility covers 291,000 square feet with automated machines that meet economic and environmental standards.
Additive manufacturing has grown since its beginning in 1987 and, with today’s vibrant activity; it is predicted to change the manufacturing industry in the next five to 10 years.
Additive manufacturing is popularly known as three-dimensional (3-D) printing. The final printed products are achieved by successive layering of materials in different shapes. 3-D printers have been developed to work with thousands materials, including plastic, ceramics and metals.
Many questioned if additive manufacturing parts would meet standards to qualify as off-the-shelf products that have been produced for years. In fact, additive manufacturing will surpass the “just-meeting-standards” mentality, because additive manufacturing has made it possible to manufacture designs in a brand new way. Traditional methods, milling and casting, involved sculpting material out of a solid block or pouring liquid material into a mold to later harden. Additive manufacturing is able to create materials with multiple parts and moving components without assembly, because the printing process is controlled by computers and software that administers precise instructions.
The potential of 3-D printing is inspiring. This technology is also enticing students to enter the manufacturing industry. Neal de Beer, Ph.D., of Sierra College CACT, stated “When students can hold the products that they have created in their own hands, it changes the way they think about design and sparks their enthusiasm for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math careers.”
Airbus is one organization serious about using additive manufacturing to optimize the design of its parts, specifically for aircraft. The company has found that aircraft parts made with precise 3-D printers can help reduce aircraft weight by 50 to 80 percent. Resultantly, reducing aircraft weight by 220 pounds can save an airline fleet $2.5 million annually on fuel costs. 3-D technology also allows manufacturers to invest in new ways of creating productions and moves them away from the classic production-line model. For example, Dutch-founded company Shapeways moved manufacturing to New York. Shapeways’ production concept allows customers to submit designs onto Shapeways’ website and have it printed in various types of plastics at the factory. Customers are printing phone cases, jewelry, unique prototype parts and toys. Likewise, the manufacturer allows customers to “shop” online by buying products from designs submitted by others.
Currently, only 0.1 percent of items in the U.S. are made using 3-D printing techniques; however the annual growth of the 3-D printer market has grown by 27 percent over the past three years. By 2021, sales of 3-D printers and services are projected to reach $10.8 billion.
Author: Jack Moran
Jack Moran is the Director
of Manufacturing Solutions at Sikich. He has more than 30 years of experience
in the industrial equipment manufacturing, technology, and enterprise resource
planning software industries. An experienced ERP consultant, Jack was
extensively involved in developing the industrial equipment capabilities within
Microsoft Dynamics AX.