Today’s manufacturers are at the forefront of a revolutionary shift in the way they do business. A variety of new tools and technologies are giving leading manufacturers the competitive edge they need, by allowing them to differentiate their products and operate more efficiently than ever before.
While 3D printing has opened up many new possibilities for manufacturers, there are several other exciting tools that are moving the industry forward. These range from smart tools that help create an interconnected workforce and enterprise, to new manufacturing processes that allow manufacturers to use new materials and capabilities to avoid commoditization.
1. Smart Glasses
Wearable devices such as smart glasses are being used to connect the hands-on workforce to the full enterprise Internet of Things (IoT) fabric, to data and to each other. In a world where everything that is simple, standardized and high-volume is already automated, smart glasses and high-performance people are central to operating complex, custom and flexible manufacturing systems.
By enabling the workforce to handle unfamiliar and complex tasks with less ramp-up time, the use of smart glasses can greatly increase operational flexibility. They allow manufacturers to expedite, change and modify work orders in real-time and communicate them to workers immediately in a consistent way.
Smart glasses enable manufacturers to fully harness the people of their company. By giving them the information they need to do their jobs, and do them well, in an ever-changing environment, human workers will remain far more flexible and adaptable than robots.
2. Condition Monitoring and Location Sensors
Manufacturing managers and supervisors have more actionable data than ever before, due in large part to condition monitoring and location sensors. These mini devices are increasingly embedded within machines or attached onto them, and stream information about the object. These range from simple beacons showing the location of something to embedded systems, which provide two-way telemetry and diagnostic capabilities.
Many of these are simply retrofitted onto existing equipment and are an easy way to augment the processes already in place to drive operational improvements in quality and productivity. For example, a company may place mini-vibration sensors and magnetic temperature probes on equipment throughout the plant. These sensors communicate to a local wireless collection device that then makes this real-time information available to plant engineers who are monitoring daily status, and run through algorithms to predict failures and recommend preventative maintenance tasks.
3. Smart Tools
More and more analog tools are being replaced with digital smart tools embedded with communication chips and screens, which allow them to provide feedback directly to the user. From Bluetooth torque wrenches to digital nut runners, the possibilities are endless and so are the ways this new information is harnessed.
The functionality and data provided by smart tools helps manufacturers create a connected workforce and an interconnected single enterprise system that operates more efficiently. In the long-term, smart tools help eliminate waste and inefficiencies that previously went undetected due to the sheer scale and complexity of manufacturing operations. In the short-term, smart tools allow current activities and people to do everything better, faster and cheaper — delivering quick ROI.
4. Cold Forming and Joining
With higher production speeds and new material efficiencies, cold forming and joining techniques are an attractive alternative to traditional casting and welding tools. Cold forming also can eliminate waste/scrap and produce parts at a lower price than those created using traditional methods. While the concept of cold forming has been around for years, the advent of new alloys to work with are creating a surge in activity in this space.
By enabling manufacturers to assemble parts with a wider variety of materials, cold forming and joining methods help manufacturers avoid the trap of commoditization. Through the use of new materials, manufacturers can add new capabilities and performance characteristics to their products that further differentiate them. For example you can design products with smaller or lighter weight parts without sacrificing strength, giving you more freedom to innovate and optimize.
5. Nanoscale Lithography
Nano technologies are creating new materials-based capabilities and properties that are increasingly part of modern products. New tools and in-house machines for compositing and delivering these materials as part of a single manufacturing process are making this increasingly practical and affordable.
For example, there are products on the market that effectively work like a pen and can draw on top of some substance, with ‘molecular ink’. These inks may have different properties with different substrates – it could be conductive, to be used to add some fine structural details, or even biologic items, like proteins.
These amazing new tools show the range of innovation that is reshaping modern manufacturing. Some involve fundamental manufacturing line changes to use new materials and techniques like cold forming or nanomaterials. Putting them into practice is usually part of new facility build-outs or are introduced as new products are released. Others, like smart glasses, smart tools and sensors can be introduced into various aspects of the operation today.
Over time, as these systems become complete and fully integrated — a whole new level of machine learning, predictive analytics and dynamic process optimization is possible.
Brian Ballard is the CEO and co-founder of APX Labs, the leading provider of enterprise software solutions for wearable technologies. He founded APX Labs in 2010 and has been leading the push to bring wearable technology to the hands-on enterprise employee ever since.