Friday, April 12, 2013

Eight Innovations that are changing the manufacturing industry

I spent the summer of 1987 being an intern at a leading truck manufacturing factory in India. Every day as I walked around the factory floor, I saw machines giving “birth” to new parts. This was the beginning of my fascination with manufacturing and automation technologies.

The field of manufacturing gives humans the capability to make things that do not exist in the natural world. All comforts of the modern life can be directly or indirectly attributed to manufacturing. I believe that automation augments human capabilities and allows us to realize more with less human effort and so the standard of living rises for everyone.

This post is focused on the manufacturing innovations in the last twenty five years and their impact. I would like to set the stage by first reviewing six notable limitations and constraints that existed in late eighties despite remarkable advances in manufacturing enabled by the use of robots, numerically controlled machines, and computers.

First, it took days to program robots and machines. It took even longer to debug those programs to make sure that they did not cause any accidental damage. Going from engineering drawings to physical parts took weeks if not months.

Second, if you were an inventor with a brilliant idea living in a small town, you had to physically travel to the nearest city that had an advanced manufacturing facility. So the access to the advanced manufacturing was limited.

Third, you would not use words “affordable” and “advanced manufacturing” in the same sentence unless you were telling a joke. The access to the advanced manufacturing required major capital investments.

Fourth, advanced manufacturing consumed a lot of energy and generated unwanted emissions and waste.

Fifth, your material choices were limited unless you had a multi-million dollar development budget. You simply could not open a catalog and find lightweight, thermally conducting, and electrically insulating material.

Finally, operating an advanced manufacturing facility required significant human expertise. For example, robots and machines had to be manually programmed using low level languages. You needed experienced operators to “babysit” machines and robots and be ready to hit emergency button if things went wrong.

The above described limitations and constraints had significant impact on the innovation process. It impacted who could participate in it, what kind of innovation could be realized, how long it would take to bring a new innovation to the market, and how much the resulting products would cost.

Many manufacturing innovations have emerged in the last twenty five years to address the above described constraints and limitations. The following eight, in no particular order, are my personal favorites:

  1. 3D Printing: 3D printing (AKA additive manufacturing) allows converting 3D CAD models into physical parts automatically. It does not use part-specific tooling or setup. It can make very complex shapes and can be operated with minimal expertise. Designers are now able to access 3D printing processes over the Internet. Please see an earlier post for more details on 3D printing.
  2. Second Generation Industrial Robots: The use of the first generation industrial robots was confined to simple tasks (e.g., welding, painting) on production lines. They were fixed in a cage and isolated from human workers to prevent injuries. Recent advances in robotics are fundamentally changing these norms. Mobile manipulators can go to workpieces to work on them. Dexterous hands enable robots to work on complex tasks. Robots can program themselves by observing human demonstrations (e.g., Baxter from Rethink Robotics). Safe Robots with novel safety features have been developed that enable human and robot collaboration on manufacturing tasks. Please see another post for more details on these developments.
  3. Low Cost Laser Cutters: One can get a brand new laser cutter for less than $10K and can use it to go from a CAD model to a physical part in a matter of minutes for reasonably complex geometries. Currently this technology is limited to mainly cutting two-dimensional shapes. I would also like to mention waterjet cutters that can cut a wide variety of materials and can easily cut through several inches thick steel. Both of these processes are quite accurate, extremely simple to use, and can be setup in less time than perhaps what will take you to read this post. Please see another post for more details on this development.
  4. Micro Manufacturing: Advances in manufacturing at small scale, especially micro molding and silicon micro machining have produced sensors and devices that are low-cost, small in size, energy efficient, and fast. These have helped in reducing the cost of manufacturing equipment and also led to many new products.
  5. Internet-Based Manufacturing Services: Today, if you have Internet connection, you have access to manufacturing facilities. You can directly order parts from manufacturers (e.g.,, let a broker find you a manufacturer (e.g.,, work with a representative for manufacturers (e.g., on the Internet. Please see another post for more details on these developments.
  6. Desktop Virtual Manufacturing: The cost of computer-aided design and manufacturing has come down dramatically and these software tools can be used to speed up the manufacturing plan generation and simulate the manufacturing system before making the part. We have reached a point where we no longer need to do physical dry runs for programs and “babysit” machines and robots.
  7. Green Manufacturing: Recent advances in manufacturing have significantly reduced the energy consumption (e.g., electric injection molding machines) and reduced negative environmental impact (e.g., coolant free dry machining).
  8. Polymer Composites: By mixing polymers with micro and nano scale ingredients, new materials are being created that have remarkable properties. The ability to injection mold these polymer composites is reducing the processing cost and making polymer composites an economically viable option over metals in many applications. This development has created many new options for designers.
The purpose of this post is to celebrate ground-breaking manufacturing innovations that are reshaping the industry. But the limitations that I identified above still exist in many segments of manufacturing industry. Moreover, what appears to be a norm today is likely to appear a major limitation in the future. So we have to continue advancing the frontier.

I have shared my personal favorites based on my own biases and experiences. What are your favorite manufacturing innovations? I look forward to your comments.