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.


  1. 3D printing is great. I've had miniature robot chassis printed out during my M.S. research at UMD. The screw holes to mount motors, boards, etc were "printed" in place which made life easy when mounting electronics. Hurray to no worries about tolerances! 3D printing definitely saved the project both time and money.

    Also, when I was at RPI for my undergrad, the machine shops on campus had an abrasive water-jet cutter and a CNC plasma cutter that the students could use for free because the setup and maintenance costs were so low! All you had to do was show up with a CAD model and a sheet of material and you were good to go.

    Oh, and a random side note about water-jet cutters: the food industry uses them to cut dough and paper (without the abrasive material of course!). Apparently the water in a water-jet cutter is moving fast enough that you can cut paper without getting it wet.

  2. Micro and nano composites are the future of material customization. A future material customization tool will take desired material properties as input and give you a recipe about how you can prepare the desired composite material. There exists some material customization tools for regular composite materials. But they have very limited capability. Extending them for micro and nano composites will be interesting. The future material customization tool can be integrated with CAD modeling software as well to provide more design flexibility.

    1. Hey Sagar, I'm pretty interested in seeing what sorts of properties and applications these composites have. Do you have any links/references for basic reading describing their potential?

    2. Hey Josh,
      You may want to read the following two articles. The authors developed a customization tool that will give you the composite specification based on the user requirements.

      1. Nandi, S. and Z. Siddique. Composite Material Customization System. in Proceedings of the ASME 2009 International Design Engineering Technical Conferences & Computers and Information in Engineering Conference. 2009. San Diego, California.
      2. Nandi, S. and Z. Siddique, A Grammatical Approach for Laminated Composite Material Customization. Journal of Concurrent Engineering, 2011.

      The following article is also interesting:

      Edwards, K.L., C.A. Abel, and M.F. Ashby, Optimal selection of composite materials in mechanical engineering design., in Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Computer Aided Design in Composite Material Technology. Jun 1994, Computational Mechanics Publ, Southampton, Engl: Southampton, UK.

      For basic reading on composite you may want to check out the following book.

      Barbero, E.J., Introduction to Composite Material Design. 2010, Philadelphia, PA: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group.

  3. I am particularly enthusiastic about 3D printing. The emerging reality and aspects of 'Crowd Sourced', and more importantly 'Crowd Tested' designs that accelerate the process of coming up with and experimenting with a good design is incredibly valuable. These have significant implications on one of the other questions posed earlier, namely, low cost educational robots and unmanned systems.

    One 'open question' to all, is how to introduce these to young students at an early enough age to make a life impact. Clearly to my mind, elementary school is where more access and exposure is useful. So the next question, is how to get more educators and parents interested.


    1. Interesting point! I never really had much exposure to CAD or 3D modelling through my public education. No Autocad, no 3DS Max, nothing! I had to pursue that stuff outside of school. It seems to me that even introducing kids to use Blender or some simpler 3D program to make their own toys or artwork would be excellent. Or, better yet, what about actual design challenges such as making your own pinewood derby car on a 3D printer?

  4. A very interesting article. I can’t more than agree with you on how these innovations have changed the way we operate. Yet, to cater to the growing demands, one of the significant challenges today is hybridizing the innovations you highlighted. Combining 3D printing and web-based manufacturing is a good example to accelerate the process of product realization. Expanding the scope of polymer composites with 3D printing is yet another area to explore. Hybridizing manufacturing processes to cater for green manufacturing must be considered as well. As we celebrate the ground breaking innovations we should continue our quest for impact oriented solutions and continuous improvement.

  5. Thanks for sharing this useful information with us. This is very informative blog and I glad to read it. I appreciate your analysis and tips.

    Keep it up.

    Industrial Products Manufacturers

  6. In the coming years I believe micro manufacturing as well as 3D printing to come out on top. Both of these applications provide almost endless possibilities for manufacturers. I am extremely excited to see the next major advancements to come out of that field.