The manufacturing sector is going through a technological revolution, with more and more businesses taking the plunge into investing in new technology. In this article, we look at the technologies that could have the greatest impact on factory environments.
It is logical to assume that, with today’s modern cutting-edge capabilities, that factories could be heading for a more data-driven factory of the future where consumers, operators and designers will all share information on everything from initial concepts right through to installation.
Operators could access all and any materials on demand, and work with robots to use them safely while relying on virtual instructions via headsets or glasses. This will then in turn enable assembly lines to produce high quality work, highly personalised products that have zero defects. Below we highlight some of the technologies that are already driving much of the change in factory environments:
1. 3D printing
Rapid advancements in 3D printing have led to UK manufacturers exploring the use of the technology in production, but what really are the possible benefits of 3D printing? Here we look at customisation, cost, flexibility and speed to market.
3D printing is certainly not new with the technology first appearing more than 25 years ago. Advancements in 3D printing continues to gain pace as manufacturers look for greater flexibility and cost-savings in production, and the technology is now being embraced in a range of manufacturing industries.
3D printing could be the key element in determining whether or not many manufacturing businesses will flourish or fail in the future. Research indicates that 3D printing is revolutionising manufacturing as we know it, which will see companies being able to fulfil consumers’ desires, creating personal specifications on orders without significant time or cost constraints.
As the cost of the technology continues to fall, 3D printing now has the potential to fundamentally change the economies of scale for the smaller, pioneering companies, opening up considerable opportunities for innovation and growth.
3D printing is set to revolutionise how we manufacture
It is therefore important that all UK manufacturers, whether they are a small independent firm or a large firm with an international focus, start to consider the benefits of 3D printing and the impact it may have, and is likely to have, on manufacturing over the next few years.
1. Customised, personalised manufacturing
With standard, mass-production it is often too complex and too expensive to customise and personalise production. 3D printing will make this process much quicker and more cost-effective, benefiting both the manufacturer and the customer. Customised manufacturing may be particularly beneficial in the healthcare (e.g. dental) and fashion (e.g. jewellery) industries, meeting demand for bespoke products.
2. Cost-effective production
3D printing undoubtedly offers manufacturers the potential to considerably streamline their manufacturing processes and, in turn, also brings huge financial opportunities. Through reduced machine set-up time and reduced tooling costs, 3D printing can significantly reduce the cost per unit, particularly for small production runs which do not gain cost advantages through scalability. This is becoming increasingly important; a recent report found that 51% of SME manufacturers are seeing customers request orders in smaller quantities. Manufacturers must strive to make small production runs more profitable.
A product that is likely to have a short production run, or where there is uncertain demand, is sometimes overlooked by manufacturers due to the high up-front tooling costs of production. 3D printing would dramatically change this.
3. Greater flexibility in production
3D printing will also give manufacturers greater flexibility in what materials they use during the production process.
4. Reduced speed to market
3D printing may also give manufacturers the opportunity to compress design cycles (e.g. through identifying design errors earlier) and reduce the time it takes to take a new product to market. 3D printing allows development ideas to progress faster than ever before. Rapid prototyping can see designers have a prototype in their hand in just hours, not days, weeks or months.
Whilst there are clear benefits of 3D printing, the technology also brings challenges such as the potential cost of initial set-up and the possible problems that mass customisation may bring (too many options could overwhelm customers).
It will be interesting to see how many manufacturers adopt 3D printing approaches in the coming years and how that influences customer demand and buying patterns.
2. Internet of Things (IoT)
The concept of having a factory that is ‘connected’ has been gathering pace over the last few years. It essentially means expanding the ever-growing Web to link machines, computers, sensors and humans to improve efficiency by enabling new levels of information processing, monitoring, collection and analysis.
By incorporating this into factory life, it allows more precision and can translate all the data the devices collects and turn it into insights that can help determine multiple things such as; how much voltage is needed to produce a product or how temperature, humidity and pressure can impact performance.
Before businesses can invest in IoT, it is essential that the said business figures out what is most important to them and which information will be vital to future success. In addition to this, these next-gen devices will also require next-gen workers who have the ability to work with and understand complex machines but with a shortage of skilled workers, this may be difficult.
Robotics have played an important role in the line of manufacturing and, over the last decade, China has emerged as the automated manufacturing powerhouse. In China since 2013, the number of multipurpose industrial robots in China has doubled to an estimated 75,000 in 2015, and that number is set to double again to 150,000 by 2018, according to the International Federation of Robotics.
However, some manufactures believe that only humans can innovate and produce ideas and the introduction of robotics is harmful to the innovation process. Having said that, robots are being employed to support existing workers and not replace them, this is known as ‘Cobotics’. It essentially means operators and robots working together to speed up the assembly process with a higher degree of quality.
4. Augmented reality
With the advancements in computer science and computer vision, information technology and engineering has enabled manufacturers to use real-time guidance and information to the point of use. Workers would simply use a pair of goggles which would have text, information and instructions displayed on the lenses for the worker to read as they perform complex tasks on the factory floor.
These goggles (or anything similar for that matter) enable the workers to carry out much more complex tasks and the augmented reality will allow for great precision and accuracy, as well as notifying the worker of the risks being imposed.
Of course, businesses would need to conduct a thorough analysis of their own factory, as well as their finances, to determine whether any of these technologies would benefit their business, or would just be an expensive mistake. Therefore, all businesses should contact a professional in the manufacturing sector before purchasing any new technology.
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