Making things is as old as humanity. Between the arrowhead and the microprocessor, we’ve defined ourselves in large parts by what we build to make life easier. Where once we scratched stone flints out of rocks, today we connect innumerable specialists across networks who have deep domain knowledge – from designers, manufacturers, engineers and builders to distributors and retailers, whose efforts combine, so some of the most complicated tools and devices on earth are built and available.
Today, the way we make things is changing rapidly. It’s going to accelerate further with the continued convergence of industries and information. Enabled by cloud computing and Internet of Things (IoT) frameworks, information on how to make things better is going to proliferate across fields and companies, as our methodologies and materials cross-pollinate, with vast stores of data reporting instantly on the best practice directly to machines. It lets manufacturing be much more agile to other needs and changes throughout the supply chain. Technology is becoming the means by which we can make more things faster with less, as the world’s population continues to grow and our natural resources dwindle.
Remember in the old days of the first inkjet desktop printers, where a document carefully assembled on the screen could come out looking completely different from the original intent? That was the way manufacturing has traditionally been done – it’s very hard to make something come out exactly the way it’s designed using analogue design and manufacturing methods.
The best way to shorten the distance between intent and output is to automate the stages in between, reducing process anomalies, methodology constraints and errors – all of which carry costs. Industry 4.0 and the rapid rise of automation is spearheading the ever-changing landscape of business and manufacturing processes. With technology evolving so rapidly, organisations must get on board to remain relevant in tomorrow’s industry.
Across industries, automation in business is a global phenomenon. Automation increases productivity and the quality of output, reduces errors and flaws in processes and products, resulting in cost savings and a better bottom line. With systems that conserve energy and reduce resource waste, automation can also improve sustainability for a healthier environment.
Instead of just being builders, assembling parts or pieces according to a blueprint, we must now become designers, having an overall understanding of the project to direct the automated technologies that will increasingly take over repetitive tasks. For this enters Push-Button Manufacturing – an integrated, collaborative manufacturing system that responds in real time to the changing demands and conditions in the factory, in the supply network and in customer needs. It’s a process that will increasingly impact every aspect of the manufacturing process and the people involved.
The algorithm as designer
An example of Push-Button Manufacturing is the computer intuition built into a process like Generative Design (GD). Instead of concepting and prototyping iterations of a product based on the expertise of the designer, the skill of an engineer, the materials available and what’s come before, one can establish the limits within which he/she wants a product to perform and have algorithms do the rest.
Using AI and the compute power of the cloud, GD enables designers and engineers to create thousands of design options by simply defining their problem through parameters, such as materials, manufacturing methods and cost constraints. One can tell the system if they want a car engine, a plane or a shoe, give it the variables like how heavy it has to be, what it has to be made of and the dimensions. The technology then explores all the possible permutations of a solution, quickly generating design alternatives that match the criteria so one can just pick the best one.
When Airbus decided to develop a new partition design for the cabin crew jump seats, they input the variables - lighter, strong enough to anchor the seats, be no more than an inch thick and attach using just four points – and let the generative design algorithm come up with a host of designs to choose from. The software came up with an internal structure more complicated than anything a human designer could conceive, that was stronger, lighter and represented the start point to make planes lighter. This makes for more environment-friendly and stronger, safer planes for passengers. For Airbus, the money saved on fuel to lift heavier aircrafts will expand profits.
The GD workflow brings manufacturing into the domain of design. When the designers work with the engineers, they have a lot more manufacturing intelligence. Constraints built into the digital tools means designers will produce work that’s easier to build when it reaches the manufacturing phase. That will in turn give engineers more time and resources to focus on optimising production, tapping into the same tools to collaborate back up the chain.
A new dimension
Another big change ushering Push-Button Manufacturing across the sector is Additive Manufacturing (AM) or 3D Printing. AM allows for flexibility and design freedom in complex shapes, such as latticing, which takes a solid body and creates lighter internal structures. Unimaginable shapes become possible, allowing for leaps in innovation, as every design can be customised and printed with more complexity and much faster than traditional methods.
The process also results in less waste. Instead of cutting material away from something that already exists to achieve a particular shape and wasting everything that was removed, we are only using as much material as we need. So, the amount of waste might be only a fraction of that generated by other methods. Today, AM is used to make almost anything, from metal to electronics and from glass to human tissues like blood vessels.
All in the code
In the coming years, Push-Button Manufacturing will be synthesised and driven in the software and data exchanges under the hood, especially in frameworks, like the Internet of Things (IoT). Sensors and transmitters already report on the performance of almost every machine and tool in the workflow. Say one needs a specific bolt for a part that he/she doesn’t have access to and figure they might have to manufacture it themselves en masse. Before one does so, software agents can trawl through the digital catalogues of suppliers far and wide to find it. If not, a machine learning algorithm might suggest a slight tweak to the process or product to suit a bolt that already exists.
All this data collected is then stored on the cloud, forming an immense pool of knowledge, just waiting to be mined, to help us further automate the making of things, improving efficiencies and output quality for a better bottom line. In ASEAN alone, it is estimated that Industry 4.0 has the potential to deliver productivity gains worth US $216 billion to US $627 billion in the manufacturing sector by 2025.
Facilitating improved manufacturing
The Push-Button technologies coming down the road (or which are already here) are combining to enable a new, better kind of manufacturing – one that will be smarter, move faster and serve more people using fewer resources. It will save money, time, manpower and environmental impact, all of which will affect the bottom line. The only question is whether the industry will get on board in time.