These technologies are having a disruptive impact on the factories of the future
As new technologies start to pervade all areas of our lives, we are beginning to see their application in the manufacturing industry. The German government coined the term ‘Industry 4.0’ which refers to this revolution of manufacturing through technology. While there is certainly some debate around the use of this term – the integration of production methods with the latest developments in computers certainly has the potential to make manufacturing autonomous, cheaper and more efficient. There are lots of ways this could be done, so what can we expect to see in the factory of the future?
1) Ultrafast 3D printing
Up until now, 3D printing has had limited applications in the manufacture of plastics. Making plastic layer by layer is a time consuming and expensive process compared to traditional techniques like injection moulding. However, Neil Hopkinson of the University of Sheffield has been working on a 3D printing technique which will make it economically viable to mass print plastic objects on a huge scale. The technology, known as high speed sintering, uses an ink jet head to deliver material, which it then fuses together with an infrared lamp. The process is up to 100 times faster than current 3D printing technique for plastics. Crucially, it is also cost effective when compared to injection moulding. Hopkinson’s high speed sintering design has been leased out to German 3D printing company Voxeljet. Competitors Hewlett Packard are also developing their own version: Multi Jet Fusion.
2) Light based manufacture
Why use expensive robots to assemble something when you could use light? An international team of researchers has recently come up with a light based manipulation platform, which could one day be used to manufacture electronic components for use in our smartphones and computers. The light based method relies on optical traps: devices which use light to manipulate small objects in liquid. With the potential to mass produce electronic parts cheaply and quickly, it could overhaul the way we manufacture items such as circuit boards. Currently, costly robots are required to place and solder minute parts of circuitry into place. As electronic components get smaller and smaller, this has become a difficult and time consuming process. Micromanipulation techniques such as light based manufacture could provide a cheap and simple alternative.
3) Embedded metrology
Quality control in a traditional factory is a lengthy and expensive process. Machine made parts have to be randomly selected, removed from the production line and individually tested to see if they’re up to scratch. If a part passes the test, then its whole batch is validated. This method is extremely time consuming and somewhat unreliable: what if a faulty part in the batch slips through the net? Embedded metrology – the measurement of parts within the production process – is a quick and convenient solution. It is more accurate and requires far less human interference in the line of production. Whilst embedded metrology is in use to some degree today, factory workers still have to physically move the measurement tech into place. Fully automated, fully integrated measuring and monitoring technology has the potential to bring point-of-manufacture quality control to the factory of the future. This will make manufacturing quicker, cheaper and more efficient.
Earlier this month ANSYS – a creator of engineering simulation software – announced that it had acquired 3D printing simulation company 3DSIM. The consequences of this deal could help to revolutionise industrial additive manufacturing. The ability to simulate the manufacture of a part from its design process to its final production will significantly reduce the current problems surrounding 3D printing in manufacture. At the moment, additive manufacturing has mostly been based around trial and error. This can result in a costly development process as companies must tweak the system until they get it right. With simulation, accurate predictions of how parts will behave will reduce errors and cut costs. Integrating simulation into manufacture from start to finish will therefore help to unleash the full potential of 3D printing in the manufacturing industry.
5) The smart factory
There’s one thing we can be sure of about the factory of the future: it will be smart. Moving beyond the basic automation of the factories of the past, the smart factory will integrate technology into every part of the manufacturing process. Fully connected, flexible and hyper efficient, the new manufacturing model will make use of technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality and the internet of things. It’s a development we are already beginning to see in action. This year Adidas opened its first Speedfactory in Germany. The aim? To deliver fashionable shoes quickly and cheaply. The Speedfactory cuts down the time from design to production to less than a week, giving consumers the fast service they desire and the ability to customise their own products. Extensive mechanisation has also drastically reduced labour costs when compared to the traditional method of making trainers by hand.
The integration of new technologies within the factory heralds a new age of manufacturing. With decreased labour costs, increased efficiency and reduced waste, the factory of the future will be cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Improved quality control will also ensure that superior items come off the production line. This will benefit both consumers who require cheap and reliable products, and the companies which aim to supply them.