TTM 2014: Future of Fabrication

The fabric of the future will likely see much more flexible and aware production tools... that will span the supply, production and delivery chain.

Looking 50 years down the lane we see that more and more people will be “retired” vs the ones that will be “working”. This is a consequence of the longer life span and decreased birth rate. In Japan more than 50% of the population today is above 50 years old.

The ratio of retiree vs working force is growing and that brings forward many issues spanning from the sustainability of pension schemes in many Countries to social aspects and to the very meaning of "workforce". Whilst today "producing", hence being a worker, implies going to a manufacturing plant to use specific -expensive- tools requiring specific operation skills and a proper ambient/organization to be used, tomorrow the boundaries between a manufacturing plant and a home may blur.

Looking today at the evolution of fabrication over the next 20 years we can see a few megatrends:

  • personalization is challenging mass manufacturing
  • food manufacturing challenge is to provide reasonable quality and quantity to everyone in the world at an affordable cost
  • electronic manufacturing is pushing towards faster product cycle requiring higher flexibility
  • 3D printing/Additive manufacturing (already used to take a 3D laser scan of your ear canal to provide a fully customize ear buds)
  • the salary gap is narrowing

The future of fabrication will leverage on a variety of technologies, several already available today, and leads to a changing working environment. Because of this, new skills will be required and given the flexibility of new fabrication tools it would make sense to have them, with an appropriate interface, closing the gap between machines and workers. Now, if one considers that young people have got used to playing games, 12,000h per youth over the age 10-19 of gaming in the last ten years, it shouldn't be a surprise to imagine that these acquired skills will be exploited by manufacturing processes. Particularly so if we think that part of the fabrication in the future will take place at home!

There are several research areas that will be driving the evolution:

  • Human robot interaction
  • Model based programming
  • Large scale vision
  • 3D modeling
  • Open Software Interfaces
  • Fleet management
  • Multi Objective Planning
  • Flexible grippers
  • Learning by demonstrations
  • Hybrid control systems

There are also several "gaps" that today are hampering a smooth evolution. Among these the speakers pointed out:

  • Robot cooperation
  • Feedback control
  • Plug-n-Play integration
  • Flexible programming
  • Flexible end effectors
  • High performance manipulators
  • High speed mobile platform

The evolution of fabrication will likely take different paths depending who is walking the path. At least we are going to see the emergence of comprehensive smarter manufacturing in big enterprises that have available huge capital to invest in changing their fabrication approach. Small and medium enterprises will likely ride their flexibility to adopt new fabrication tools in niches with lower capital investment. Logistics and warehousing are going to be leader in the supply and distribution chain and will have to move fast, faster than the deployment of 3D printers that might end up disintermediating them in some sectors.

It should be noted that the use of robots is not chiefly motivated by the lower cost (which, by the way, in many cases is not lower at all) but by the consistent quality and increased flexibility. Today we have 1 robot for every 10 workers in automotive biz and, interestingly, the forecast by the speakers was that there will be no big change in this ratio in the next two decades. So, according to the speakers at least, the robotisation of fabrication has already reached the maximum impact on workforce and any further "efficiency" (read substitution of blue and white collar workers by machines) will be rebalanced by more jobs being created. Personally I am not so sure about this forecast.

Another interesting thought on the future is the growing importance of recycling that will steer new ways of design. Recycling by design will be an absolute must in twenty years time.

Digital manufacturing (to monitor continuously what is going on) and agile manufacturing to ensure flexibility are going to be the leading paradigms to meet the challenges ahead. As eCommerce keeps increasing in volume there is a growing interest in synchronizing the manufacturing processes with the lean supply and distribution chains.

Industrial Internet and Industry 4.0 are two names for the same thing (US vs Europe) where the digital and manufacturing processes support each other. Big Data and cloud are important components of Industry 4.0.

Massive use of automated aerial vehicles will permeate the supply and distribution chains. It was noted that 40% of people entering the US airforce are going to fly from a container, without ever leaving the ground. This trend in military will create a fall out leading to sustainable technology and delivery systems: autonomous delivery systems are likely to take the lion share in the delivery chain by 2035.

As a side thought, in synch with these growth in autonomous vehicle, it was noted that newborn in this and next decade will probably not learn to drive a car since by the time they get 18 cars will be driving them. I beg to differ here, since I see a much slower uptake of self driving cars.

Dirty and heavy jobs will be eliminated, hence the need for requalification of blue (and white) collars. MOOCs will play a pivotal role in education of workers. The MOOCs industry will be a very complex one with the need to continuously retune the education material and keep the pace of changes in the industry.

The future of fabrication will allow small teams to create complex products. An interesting example was given. Savioke is a start up that is selling robots to hotels and communities. Using new fabrication tools they have been able to develop complex system in a company consisting of just 7 people. They have leveraged 3D printing, software to support modeling and printing, centralized machine shop and support software that can produce parts in a professional way at low cost.

This is not an isolated case. More small companies are already in biz and more will come. Open Source Software, like ROS, can become a global manufacturing software platform that fuels these new constituencies of small manufacturers.

The flexibility that might be achieved in the future through robots can already be seen in the use robots to assist paraplegic patients, each one with his own specific needs. The possibility of addressing niches at an affordable cost, one of the challenges mentioned for the future of fabrication, will change the stage of manufacturing. Any products in the future will be software based satisfying a low volume, speed to market and smaller markets, in synch with the general trends previously outlined. It remains to be seen where this personalization will take place: as an embedded feature out of the production line, at the point of sale, through customer support….

Possibly, the major changes on the fabrication paradigms will be a consequence of the use of 3D printing, Crowdsourcing and Terabit/Sec optical fiber. For this latter the need for an Industrial Internet that is secure and can be relied upon was pointed out.

In the crowdsourcing area it was interesting the talk given by GE describing an open challenge to design an airplane engine bracket. The challenge was taken up by thousands of people in over 50 countries. The winner, from Hungary, designed a bracket of the required characteristics of strength and flexibility that led to a saving of 85% of the current weight.

The next 20 years will be characterized by the availability of "Infinite Data". As intelligent machines will begin to converse directly with each other, the traditional methods of data storage and management will be overwhelmed.

Near real time decisions will be made at the edge and machine consciousness will be used to help decide what should be remembered and … what is best to forget.

The low cost and volume of data outstrip the value of transporting, sorting and storing it. The time to value capture is the new data metrics for the future of fabrication.

Synaptic chips will be companions of workers in manufacturing leading to symbiotic fabrication where man and machines will interact about goals, not about specific operations as it happens today.

The next industrial revolution will be about providing industrial capability to any people and that will transform the planet distributing factories in every home.

Fabrication will move from objects to other products, including human spare parts!

Author - Roberto Saracco

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