Cover Story: Disruptive Forces

September 12, 2016 No Comments
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What Are The Next Game Changers?

By Nancy Huddleston

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It’s an Amazon world that we live in with everything we desire at our fingertips. What’s more, Amazon isn’t just an e-commerce company where people order the latest and greatest gadgets, best sellers, or kitchenware. Amazon is in the robotics business, too, which not only helps fuel the feverish demand from customers for fast service; but also causes other businesses to shift their operations models to keep up.

So what’s a manufacturer to do?

The way E.J. Daigle, dean of robotics and manufacturing at Dunwoody Institute, sees it: “If Henry Ford continued to build the Taurus today the same way he built the Model T in 1914, he’d no longer be in business.” In other words, it’s all about innovation and growth. “As soon as a company stops growing, that is the point when it begins declining,” he said, “Someone will make a better part or make it at a lower price.”

Case in point: It is said that Henry Ford changed manufacturing when his disruptive idea of using a moving assembly line reduced the time it took to build a car from more than 12 hours to about 90 minutes. Just over 100 years later, cars roll off the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company in about 60 seconds, and the process to get the cars onto the line is much different, involving virtual manufacturing, 3D printing, and robotics. Moreover, to keep up with today’s on-demand society, many of the cars coming off the line are made-to-order for customers. Reportedly, Ford can produce 600,000 variations of its best-selling F-150 truck.

As we continue into the 21st century, what are the next game changers for manufacturers?


COMPUTER-BASED AUTOMATION

What does Amazon’s use and monopoly of the Kiva robot have to do with manufacturing? The innovative move set the online retail industry on its ear – much like Ford’s concept of automating the assembly line resulted in building cars faster and making them more affordable. In essence, both Amazon and Ford created a disruption that led to a shift in society’s expectations, thereby creating a new normal.

Manufacturers can do that too, by thinking of production in new ways and by employing new ideas and methods.

Stratasys Ltd. in Eden Prairie has taken on that challenge and set its sights on transforming manufacturing to create what it calls “the factory of the future” by introducing two new 3D printers: the Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator and the Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator.

Parts and products that took weeks to build will now take hours or days to build in what Stratasys says amounts to a “step change” for manufacturing. “We can now build a part the size of a room, if that’s what the customer needs,” said Scott Crump, cofounder and chief innovation officer of Stratasys, and inventor of Fuse Deposition Modeling (FDM).

Bram de Koning, owner/director of Cellro in the Netherlands, is also creating disruption in the manufacturing marketplace by building robots that can do more than one thing. “You have to look to the future. The customer wants products quicker. What used to take one week now takes one day,” he said during a visit to Cellro’s facilities in Minneapolis. “To reach that goal you need intelligent automation.”

And he should know. Cellro builds the Xcelerate robot and the company advocates that robots are the key solution that lets companies tackle production challenges with ease. “If you do not take the step to automate, you’ll lose the race. The risk is much higher if you do not do it. You’ll price yourself out of the market,” de Koning said.

That’s exactly the type of thinking that will enable manufacturers to evolve, Daigle said, pointing out that the next big thing is computer-based automation. “Right now, you have robots on the factory floor and they are dedicated to one process and one job,” he said, “When a robot has the ability to do multiple or different things then that will be the game changer. That’s repurposing your resources instead of dedicating them to one task.”

Indeed, but the robots can’t do this by themselves, de Koning points out. It’s the software. “We put intelligent software into intelligent robots,” he said. “That’s what will be the key to change in the next five years.”

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DIGITAL MANUFACTURING

The sharing of data throughout a product’s entire life cycle leads to lower costs, quicker turnarounds, and improved productivity. The Internet of Things (IoT), in which everyday objects have network connectivity to allow them to send and receive data, is making digital manufacturing the next big game changer.

Siemens, a provider of product lifecycle management and manufacturing operations software, is one company developing software that links all aspects of manufacturing, from initial product design to factory layout to consumer feedback after delivery. This “digital thread” allows each aspect of the manufacturing process to be tied together.

The company also is working closely with Stratasys to develop the Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator to further their shared vision of making 3D printing a viable and indispensable component of product manufacturing. Stratasys integrated its core additive manufacturing technologies with industrial motion control hardware and design-to-3D printing software capabilities provided by Siemens.

Andreas Saar, Vice President of Manufacturing Engineering Solutions for Siemens, said the partnership with Stratasys is the wave of the future. “We are driven by the Internet of Things and big data, so companies have to evolve and understand the impact of these things to them. Digitalization is a huge challenge,” he said, adding that speed, time to market, efficiency, and quality all factor into the equation. “Addressing these major changes that influence us will determine if we are a leader in manufacturing or not.”

Saar said the partnership with Stratasys encompasses the areas of additive manufacturing, intelligent automation, and advanced manufacturing. “All of these three things together are real game changers in our industry,” he said.

“Why Siemens and Stratasys?” he asked in regard to the partnership. “Industries and companies have to work together to do business and produce products and parts in the future. If we work and collaborate together, we’ll reshape the world and how we make things.”

So what will the manufacturing floor look like in the future?

Maybe like Proto Labs in Maple Plain, Minn. The company uses a digital process that involves looking at a customer’s model and deciding how to produce it, based on materials and requirements. This gives customers a price quote that is based, at least in part, on a design-for-manufacturability (DFM) analysis.

And it’s much more than simply trading data, according to “Data, Digital Threads and Industry 4.0,” a white paper written by Proto Labs. “These software systems do more than trade data. They eliminate much of the human intervention that goes with managing them. This is called automation (we’re not talking about robots here), and is a big part of, if not the key driver behind, digital manufacturing.”

Daigle believes digital manufacturing will attract students at Dunwoody Institute into careers in manufacturing. “We’ve got to unleash the young talent,” he said. “Manufacturers need to embrace them and benefit from them with the new kind of technology that young workers want,” he said. “Today’s business owners have not been exposed to technology at the same level of a 25-year-old. If manufacturers want to bring increased productivity to the shop floor, trust them.”

Daigle recommends that business owners get into a Google mindset. “Don’t handcuff younger workers. Let them think outside of the box. Henry Ford thought outside the box and the auto industry is still constantly evolving. Look at the example of the Tesla for proof,” he said.


LIGHTS-OUT MANUFACTURING

The philosophy of lights-out manufacturing is that humans do not need to be present to run the machines. One of the earliest descriptions of this process can be found in “Autofac,” a 1955 science fiction short story by Philip K. Dick, set in a post-apocalyptic world war where a network of robots supplies goods to human survivors.

Although shop floors can’t run themselves without guidance to the degree seen in “Autofac,” businesses are deploying the lights-out theory at varying levels. Daigle said the most common lights-out scenario is in a machining environment where a machinist sets up the parts and materials, loads up the robots, inspects the set-up, starts the cycle, and then walks out after an eight-hour shift while the machines run at night. “So, theoretically, one machinist can make up to 1,000 parts because he/she has prepped a whole fleet of machines to operate unattended,” he said.

This theory is one that Cellro embraces. “A lot of intelligence is needed in the software to be able to communicate at a high level,” de Koning said. “The robot provides the movement and manipulation; the human creates the software that provides the intelligence.”

“This is not just putting a robot in a factory,” de Koning continued, “it’s a process. The company defines the process, which is flexible and allows it to get the part to a customer in a short amount of time. It’s not only about the price, it’s about how quick the customer wants it. It’s like buying on Amazon – they see it, click on it, and want it the same day.”

Cellro’s software engineers are working hard to create that same kind of e-commerce buying experience to meet the demands in the machining industry. “We continue to develop the software that will make a more intelligent robot,” de Koning said, which goes hand-in-hand with the automation of manufacturing.

Daigle said there are pros and cons to lights-out manufacturing. The biggest challenge is human error. “If it is set up incorrectly, then you get a bad part and you’ve wasted time and money,” he said. “So the answer to that is to always have someone around in case something goes wrong. A human hand may not need to touch the process of something being made, but it is needed to get the raw materials there, and to make sure the operation is running smoothly.”

Lights-out manufacturing also is one of the most disruptive processes on the horizon for the industry. “While it’s got the biggest bang, it’s also got the biggest concern at the same time,” Daigle pointed out.

The main one: taking jobs away from people. “That said, we know there’s not a sufficient workforce out there to draw from right now, so we have to ask if this is something that will help that situation,” Daigle said. “It’s hard to say, but we do know kids don’t want to work in the machine shop that their grandpa, or even their dad, did. They want to work in the coolest machine shop out there.”


3D PRINTING

The coolness factor of 3D printing continues to evolve. Although originally a tool for prototyping, 3D printing now is a disruptive force that is shaping nearly every aspect of manufacturing. And there’s something more, according to Daigle: “It’s another reason why American manufacturers can compete now on a world-wide scale.”

What’s next for 3D printing?

Will the 3D technology replace traditional manufacturing?

According to Stratasys, its partnership with Siemens on the Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator, and collaboration with Boeing and Ford on the Infinite-Build 3D Composite Demonstrator, will create the “factory of the future” and provide unlimited possibilities that will turn today’s manufacturing companies on their sides.

Stratasys has done just that with the Infinite-Build 3D machine. It turned the traditional 3D printing concept sideways to create an infinite build approach which prints on a vertical plane for practically unlimited part size in the build direction. The machine can produce parts that are 40 inches wide, 30 inches tall and of infinite length, because the back of the machine is open. The idea is to meet the needs of aerospace and automotive industries for parts of all sizes and shapes that must be built to specific quality standards.

According to Stratasys, the collaboration with Boeing and Ford helped define the requirements and specifications for the Infinite-Build machine and fulfill the quest to produce low volume, lightweight parts. To that end, Ford and Stratasys are working together to test and develop new applications for automotive-grade 3D materials that previously were not possible due to size limitations. And Boeing is looking to reduce the weight and cost of aircraft parts and structures, and to reduce the time it takes to prototype and test new tools and parts.

“What we’re doing is elevating the capabilities in materials, repeatability, factory automation, and design tools,” explained Rich Garrity, Americas President at Stratasys.

Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of Shapeways, discussed the development of digital manufacturing at the Inside 3D Printing NY show in April with Desktop Engineering magazine, and spoke to how printing systems offer a way to alter the landscape of manufacturing.

“The next wave of new technology is machines that we can use to make things, but they make it in a different way,” he said. “This is the difference between mass manufacturing, which is an analog technology, and machines that can basically make any type of product. We’re now starting to understand that these machines have capabilities that might enable us to transform manufacturing to a digital technology.”

The idea of digital manufacturing, according to Weijmarshausen, changes who can make designs, what is made, and where it’s made. With 3D printers, end users now have access to the products they want by printing them, and manufacturers don’t have to take the cost risks of mass-producing something for which there is no market.


COMMON THREAD

Within their unique market sectors, both the work of Henry Ford and Amazon have contributed to the advancement not only of the manufacturing industry, but also of the country’s economy itself. Although disruptive technologies might be viewed as risky and “untested,” manufacturers cannot afford to ignore the potential for their companies’ future operations.

The experts agree that the challenges facing the industry are here to stay, and those who can anticipate and meet the changing patterns are in a position to continue to thrive in their market. New technologies, such as lights-out manufacturing, 3D printing, digital manufacturing, machine visioning, collaborative robotics, and machine monitoring are creating opportunities today that will, indeed, shape tomorrow.


Nancy Huddleston is the editor and publications manager for the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association. She can be reached at nancy@mpma.com.

Copyright © 2016 Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association. For permission to use or reprint this article please contact Nancy Huddleston, publications manager for Precision Manufacturing Journal.

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