where-will-technology-manufacturing-lead-nextThe first Industrial Revolution, which started in the latter half of the 18th Century, changed the way we live and work, with steam power, mechanisation, and the introduction of factories leading to agrarian, rural societies in Europe and America becoming more urban and industrialised. The Second Industrial Revolution, also known as the Technological Revolution, saw a number of advances including the widespread use of electrical power and the introduction of the production line. The Third Industrial Revolution, aka the Digital Revolution, could be seen as having started anywhere from the late 1950s to the 1970s and saw digital communication and computing technology come to the fore.

Now we’re poised on the brink of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Like its predecessors, this will not be a single event or based on a single advance in technology. Rather it is set to be an ongoing process whereby a number of different technologies come together to change the way we live and, even more so, the way we work. Developments such as 3D printing and the Internet of Things (IoT) are already doing it on a relatively small scale, but as use of these new technologies increases, so will the impact they have on manufacturing and emerging societies around the globe.

3D printing

In the traditional manufacturing process, a factory (or even, on a much smaller scale, an artisan) starts with a larger piece of raw material and takes away the layers or parts of the material that are not required. Think of cutting timber down to size or reducing and shaping a lump of metal. This is known as subtractive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing is the opposite. It starts with nothing and gradually adds the material in ultra-thin layers, building them up until the required object is created. This process is also commonly known as 3D printing, as the creation of the individual layers can be equated to the action of a traditional printer.

3D printing itself is not new. It has been used for years in high-value manufacturing such as the aerospace industry. The difference now is that the digital design software that is also required has become more sophisticated and 3D printing has become more accessible. This has led to smaller companies being able to offer bespoke, individualised items and for specialist SMEs to be able to adopt the technology.

Amazon has filed a patent application for trucks to be equipped with 3D printers that can manufacture an ordered item en route to the customer’s address. Dispersed factories, where items are produced locally on a small scale rather than from a central factory on a much larger one, are another option.

Pam Murphy, CEO at business software group Infor, says “As well as reducing waste, [3D printing] will allow companies to save money because they won’t need to keep parts inventories when they can just print them off as needed. They will also be able to reduce 10 steps in manufacturing down to one.”

Light and sound

Photonics is the science of photon, or light, generation and manipulation. The field has many applications, including medicine and defence but in manufacturing terms, this generally means the use of industrial laser systems. No longer the preserve of science fiction, advanced laser systems can now offer unparalleled capabilities in precision manufacturing and advanced materials processing. Photonics can be used in large-scale manufacturing such as car production but the precision of lasers also makes them invaluable for delicate work within electronic components.

Sir David Payne, director of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), which is leading photonics research in the UK, said: “We know from experience the astonishing range of innovative ideas that emerge when scientists and engineers think about manufacturing. The key is to work with industry to understand the opportunity not only to improve existing manufacturing methods but also to develop entirely new ways of making things.”

Ultrasonic technology, meanwhile, uses soundwaves with frequencies higher than the upper limit of human hearing. Again, it has many applications including medicine (ultrasound imaging or sonography) and the testing of structures for invisible flaws. It also has many industrial applications, including ultrasonic welding technology, cutting, cleaning and to accelerate chemical processes.

Smart factories

The factory of the future will not only be able to complete most of the processes necessary to manufacture a product, it will also be able to learn and, to an extent, think for itself. According to a Forbes report, artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning was set to be a $36 billion market going into 2016. This compares to just $0.9 billion in 2013, demonstrating the potential importance and growth of the field in the eyes of big business and other investors.

The vision is an integrated process that can adapt to changing situations. Using a combination of big data, analytics and A.I., this system would oversee everything from procurement of raw materials based on predicted demand through the fabrication of the product to the logistics of delivery. We’re not at that point yet but factories are already getting smarter and the increasing interconnectivity of the Internet of Things (IoT) means more and more systems are becoming more integrated.

The logistics sector has been routinely using Machine to Machine (M2M) technology for a long time, as assets, vehicles and management systems communicate to make the whole logistics process a smart and increasingly joined up one. This approach is also being brought into the manufacturing process. In Germany, for example, the prototype smart factory at the German Artificial Intelligence Research Centre (DFKID) features manufacturing modules that can change their functions, be rearranged into different orders and communicate and work together in a similar way to how a PC recognises a ‘plug and play’ device.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution appears to be well under way. It’s impossible to predict exactly how it will look in a decade’s time, let alone another 50 years. There’s little doubt however, that it will have a profound and lasting effect on the way we make and consume products.

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