Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Societal Implications of Advanced Manufacturing

What distinguishes humans from other living creatures is their ability to (1) grow food for providing nourishment, (2) alter the surrounding environment (e.g., construct buildings, bridges, roads etc.) to facilitate modern living, and (3) manufacture artifacts to improve the quality of life. 

The importance of being self-reliant on food production is well understood by every nation. For example, the US produces a large portion of food items consumed by its population. Construction by its very nature takes place in the communities that are going to benefit from it. Manufacturing on the other hand has seen large geographical shifts due to economic considerations. This has major societal implications.   

As countries around the world experience high unemployment rates and large trade deficits, there appears to be a vibrant debate about the role of manufacturing in the society. Developed nations are primarily interested in high value manufacturing that creates high paying jobs and export opportunities for its manufacturers. This type of manufacturing is often called Advanced Manufacturing. A number of enabling technologies are having a profound effect on the manufacturing sector. This post explores the value of Advanced Manufacturing in the societal context.

I have categorized advanced manufacturing into four main areas and tried to list challenges, enabling technologies, goals,  and societal implications for them. 

1. Smart Manufacturing
  • Challenges: Manufacturing consumes significant resources and negatively impacts the environment. To compete favorably, companies need to offer high quality products of increasing complexity at a faster pace with lower prices.  
  • Enabling Technologies for Addressing These Challenges: Internet of Things, Low Cost Sensors, Ubiquitous Computing, Machine Learning, and Cloud Computing
  • Goal: Improve manufacturing efficiency and productivity
  • Societal Implications:  Reduce environmental impact of manufacturing, create high paying jobs in manufacturing, and reduce cost 
2. Automation
  • Challenge: Manufacturing involves significant manual labor and hence not competitive in high wage regions  
  • Enabling Technologies for Addressing This Challenge: Digital Models, Virtual Prototyping Software, Human-Friendly Robots, Human Robot Collaboration, and Automated Material Handling Systems  
  • Goal: Reduce human labor in manufacturing 
  • Societal Implications: Make domestic production viable, increase exports, and enhance national security by reducing reliance on imported goods
3. Advanced Materials 
  • Challenge: Existing materials limit the design options
  • Enabling Technologies for Addressing This Challenge: Advances in Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, and Composites  
  • Goal: Develop new materials to overcome functional limitations of existing materials
  • Societal Implications: Enable invention and creation of new products    
4. Process Innovations
  • Challenge: Existing processes impose constraints on what can be made
  • Enabling Technologies for Addressing This Challenge: 3D Printing, Additive Manufacturing, In-Mold Assembly, Microfabrication, and Nanofabrication
  • Goal: Develop new processes to overcome limitations of existing processes
  • Societal Implications: Democratize manufacturing, empower innovators, reduce barriers to create new businesses based on new products  
I would like to hear your thoughts.