Muir Omini

Concept to Reality: Manufacturing Technologies Go Mainstream

by Bob Beckmann

When Henry Ford optimized his assembly line some 100 years ago, the changes and advances he made quickly left the confines of the four walls of his factory and became the fuel for an industrial revolution we have been optimizing ever since.

Now we see changes driven by technology. Concepts that were dreams 10 years ago are part of our plant operations today. It’s hard to imagine that we live in a world with phones that have more computing power than an Apollo space capsule. We have available to us things that George Jetson wouldn’t believe. Technology moves at a speed that leaves most of us chasing rather than keeping pace.

Manufacturing is experiencing growing pains when it comes to technology. Factories that have operated the same way for 70 years are now forced to adapt to a world of customization and immediacy. It is a true industrial revolution, and if history has shown us anything, a next level of technology is about to make the leap from the big operations to small and medium-sized plants worldwide.

Here, we explore what some of these technologies are and how they are used.

Digital Operations

Although some companies still use ledgers and spreadsheets, the digital trend is to move to a robust ERP system that can help manage the operation of a company. Everything from raw materials to finished goods are organized with these systems, and they can even be used to find the true cost of a finished product.

Supply Chain

A person can now order an automobile online. They can enter the model and every option they want. They press the “buy” button and immediately the company system goes to work. Goodbye to the days of the scheduler, the buyer, the planner, and the paperwork. Now the data is immediately sent to the plant, as well as the first- and second-tier suppliers, and back to the customer. Production dates are quickly confirmed, the parts are ordered, and the customer knows exactly when their new vehicle will arrive. They can even go online and see precisely where in the production process the vehicle stands.

Engineering/Digital Plant Floor

The days of drawings are quickly fading. Now CAD models are created in the engineering department and those models are used to make parts. The files are sent to the mold maker—or the machining center or 3D printer—and the process begins. When the finished parts arrive, the same models are used for inspection (sometimes done with digital comparison lasers) and the assembler uses a screen at their station to see the same models to ensure the final parts are put together correctly.

Cybersecurity

With all of this data, every company needs to be acutely aware of the threats facing their company. This is not about someone stealing your production data, but rather someone stealing the most valuable thing on your computer—your money.

Every company has a list of current (and some past) employees. They have that employee’s name, address, phone number, social security number and most likely their bank account number for direct deposit. Oh, what a treasure for a bad guy!

When was the last time you had a true cybersecurity test of your system? You may say you are okay because your computers have up-to-date antivirus software, but what about that computer on the plant floor that runs on Windows 95 because the machine it is hooked up to was never upgraded?

3d Printing/Additive Manufacturing

The technology for additive manufacturing (AM) has been around for a few decades but was only available to companies who had deep pockets and standing usage. Now, versions of this type of equipment are available in box stores or online. It has become so mainstream it is used in grade schools. Using it in manufacturing was rare even five years ago, but today it is the fastest growing technology upgrade in manufacturing operations. Here is why:

Cost reduction: Since part production using additive manufacturing does not require set-up and tooling costs, production costs are only incurred for the parts themselves at the time they are manufactured. Even small production runs and one-off pieces do not add cost. In addition, system parts designed for optimum function can often be realized as a single part, simplifying assembly and quality assurance.

Lightweight design: Intelligent manufactured parts using laser sintering processes combine high strength with a weight reduction of 40 to 60 percent. The material savings translate into more flexibility in design and engineering. As a result, cars or airplanes consume significantly less fuel and emit less carbon dioxide.

No Tooling: 3D printing technology enables maximum flexibility in production planning. In addition, production processes without tools require less energy and raw materials than conventional manufacturing operations. Modified parts, upgrades, and spare parts can be produced as needed, obviating the need for storage. Watch this industry closely. New materials such as metals, epoxies, plastics, ceramics and even food are now being printed. So, if your company passed on this technology in the past, you may want to see what has changed since you started reading this article!

Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality

Virtual reality (VR), sometimes referred to as augmented reality (AR), is quickly entering the manufacturing environment. This quick growth should cause more vendors to enter the field, hence reducing the cost and making the technology more accessible.

VR is defined as “a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person. That person becomes part of this virtual world, or is immersed within this environment, and whilst there, is able to manipulate objects or perform a series of actions.”

So how is VR benefiting the manufacturing sector? By improving worker safety, creating better products, and saving manufacturers money. Here’s why:

Improving Worker Safety. While the manufacturing sector has dramatically improved its safety programs over the years, any injury or fatality is one too many. VR allows plant managers to simulate the production process and assembly line configurations, identifying potentially dangerous situations. Virtual reality can also immerse an employee in a future workstation, then capture the employee’s movement to evaluate task feasibility and proficiency. Using VR, automotive giant Ford has reduced the injury rate of employees by up to 70 percent.

Creating Better Products. VR is making near-perfect assembly a possibility. Using goggles that employ cameras, depth sensors, and motion sensors to place images onto a real working environment, workers and engineers can “see” the proper parts and instructions on how to assemble a component the correct way.

Saving Money. To get products that meet specifications, prototypes must be created, tested, and retested. This gets expensive. Using VR, manufacturers eliminate the need to build full-scale models. Using Microsoft’s VR technology, engineers can see each piece of equipment involved in the design of a product and put it together in the virtual world before constructing it for real. This will cut training time by 75 percent per person, saving millions.

Cobots

As the internet of things grows exponentially, collaborative robots become commonplace in the manufacturing cycle. Collaborative robots, or cobots for short, are robots that work in a shared physical space with humans, allowing humans and robots to work together. Cobots have risen in popularity since 2010 and are often preferred to traditional manufacturing robots designed to work in a segregated area with little or no interaction with people.

They are designed to stop moving when their human coworker, or anyone, touches them. The cobot market is expected to grow significantly in the next decade for several reasons. There is an increasing demand for automation across all industries, but particularly manufacturing where tasks are often repetitive, hence a risk for injury. Meanwhile, cobot technology is advancing every year. They are more widely available and less expensive, currently estimated to be an average of $24,000 each. These dropping prices and increased functionality are likely to encourage cobot adoption in small and medium-sized enterprises that may have overlooked the technology in the past.

Robots working in tandem with employees can lead to a highly efficient, flexible, and reliable production process. Cobots can be used in product assembly, product pick-and-place processes, injection molding, placing of parts, and quality inspection.

They can be especially helpful in heavy lifting by improving efficiency in the production cycle and reducing the risk of injury. Some cobots are designed to work on repetitive heavy lifting jobs.

One outstanding example of how robots and humans can work together is a heavy-lifting task in which the human lines up the object to be lifted, and the cobot lifts.

The human reduces the risk of damage to items by positioning what it is to be lifted. The robot saves the human the fatigue and risk of injury by lifting. The combination reduces costs, improves the result through precision, and maintains a fast-paced schedule.

In Conclusion

All of these technologies were just a dream a few years ago. Today they are reality and changing the way manufacturing is done worldwide. With the expected continued shortage in labor, these advances allow a company to optimize production, increase quality, and save money while attracting a workforce that loves to solve problems with technology. They can only help to make your business stronger.

Bob Beckmann P.E., CEM is a project manager with Missouri Enterprise who helps solve technical challenges for companies across the state. Find out more at MissouriEnterprise.org.