Nov 05

The Future State of Manufacturing

Worldmeters states that the human population will reach 8 billion by 2024, 9 billion by 2040, and they expect it to continue to grow at least until 2050. In order to satisfy the demands of this increase populace every action we take will need to become more efficient. This is especially true in the world of manufacturing.

Lean Manufacturing is a method used to eliminate waste within a process. Assuming a mindset where customers only want to pay for value added work, it becomes essential everything else be removed. One main focus of Lean is to only build the product that is needed (“Just-in-Time” or “JIT”) so as to avoid the need for storing finished goods. By doing so manufacturers can reduce their plant size, decrease raw material investments, and run less risk of damaging their finished product.

As our population increases land will become more valuable, forcing manufacturers to practice Lean in order to reduce their operating expense. One major challenge in Lean is that automation is not designed for the changeovers that come with JIT scheduling. This means much of the labor still needs to be done by people. In 2015, the manufacturing industry in the USA alone had 600,000+ unfulfilled jobs, despite having nearly 8 million people unemployed.

This is a current problem, and will continue to grow if the skilled labor deficit issue isn’t addressed. Robot manufacturers are aware of this, and have been attempting to make A.I. platforms and rapid teach pads to reduce changeover time. Some are even making their robots have personalities to help blend into the workforce. Robots are a great way to make people more efficient, but they still require a human’s involvement. This interaction requires knowledge.

Manufacturing is a very competitive industry. Companies all over the world are continuously working to improve their tactics to shave seconds off their labor. We as consumers demand it. Introducing a fleet of robots is a scary investment when your margins are already tight. In order to take such a risk one must be extremely confident that there will be a return on the investment. The only way to know this is to have accurate data.

The alternative to investing in robots is to focus on the automation of current technology and equipment, as well as processes and tasks traditionally done by support staff. Imagine a workbench opening and closing drawers, handing the operator tools like a surgeon’s assistant, the machinery turning on/off to conserve electricity, or autonomous carts that supply needed material and drive away when loaded. We have the technology to do all of this, but there is one element missing: knowing when each action is to be triggered.

In order to fully utilize each of these technological possibilities we need to know what an operator is doing at all times. The best way to do this is by using digital work instructions. If an operator is following a sequential process shown by a computer, the computer would then be able to send the proper signals to the corresponding tools to perform a needed action. If this sounds sophisticated, I assure you it is far easier than you might imagine. Technology has become so readily available and simplified, many high school students that participate in robotics clubs are capable of building the control system to automate a workbench. Again, the only missing component is providing that workbench trigger points to execute an action and digital work instructions could easily be the solution.

If manufacturers transitioned to this type of digital plant they would create more ergonomic work stations and would yield higher quality and productivity. The data collected would provide management understanding of their inefficiencies. This in turn allows them to better plan for investing in automation. We need to embrace this technological shift, and begin implementing it into manufacturing. We already focus on limiting inefficiencies throughout our daily lives. As the global population increases, we need to make sure manufacturing is able to keep up.

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