Cover Story: Disruptive Opportunities

September 7, 2017 No Comments
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Transform to Stay Ahead of the Curve

By Nancy Huddleston


toc_features50pxAs technology continues to disrupt our world, how will that create opportunities for growth and expansion for precision manufacturers? Here is a futuristic look at how nanotechnology, battery storage, sensors, robotics, 3-D printing, and supply chain management are driving today’s emergent changes, and transforming tomorrow’s advancements in manufacturing.


Nanotechnology – the engineering of functional systems at a molecular scale – is traditionally used in the aerospace and biomedical arenas. Now it is being used to manufacture lightweight stronger materials for boats, sporting equipment, and auto parts.

This science of small things is also unlocking opportunities over a wide range of products and applications, from healthcare to energy and manufacturing, according to “The Nano Revolution,” a blog from Julius Baer Group Ltd., a private Swiss banking group. Aymeric Sallin, the founder of NanoDimension, is quoted as saying he’s convinced that companies that move the science from the lab into the commercial sector have the potential to become the blue chips of tomorrow.

The best piece of advice from Sallin to someone interested in entering the nanotech market is to look at it pragmatically and with a product-focused approach. “Ask yourself, do I get a much better value proposition for my product, an order-of-magnitude cost advantage, and a much more efficient manufacturing process than with other competing technologies? If the answer is ‘yes,’ go for it and don’t get distracted by all of the other things that this technology could achieve.”

Although nanotechnology is small, some future large-scale applications are expected to be in energy storage and solar power generation. “Using nanomaterials for lithium-ion batteries, for example, could extend the storage capacity of batteries. The use of nanomaterials could also significantly increase the light harvesting and energy generation capacity of solar cells.”

What’s more, the nanotechnology market is expanding fast, according to “The Nano Revolution.” Last year, for example, the global market for nanotechnology products was valued at around $26 billion, according to an estimate by BCC Research. The market research company RNCOS predicts that the nanotech market will increase to $76 billion by 2020.

Battery Storage

As the development of nanomaterials continues, more applications are being identified that involve the integration of high technology devices with centuries-old products, according to “The Power Suit: Not Just for Work.”

One of these applications within the garment industry is a new trend known as Power Suits, which involves harvesting energy from external sources (think solar, thermal, wind, salinity gradients, and kinetic energy) that is captured and stored for small, wireless devices. The application can be for wearable electronics and/or wireless sensor networks. Another application is to provide power for pacemakers and other implants, and embedding GPS devices into clothing for hikers or to locate a disoriented vulnerable child or adult.

But what about wirelessly charging these applications? Up until now, there were two options – a charged pad, or wires and cables.

The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology is developing a way to wirelessly charge something from afar. A prototype, the Dipole Coil Resonant System (DCRS), reportedly can wirelessly power devices up to 15 feet away. This is done using a magnetic field, and can charge up to 40 mobile phones, or larger devices, like a TV.

Will there be a time when charging isn’t necessary?

According to Cota, the time is now. Using a patented smart antenna technology, the developers of the Cota power charger say wireless devices can be remotely and automatically charged so that you never have to think about it. The Cota device is also programmed to look for patterns in device usage, thereby ensuring that every device within range is automatically charged to full capacity.


As the work horses for the Internet of Things (IoT), these devices keep the temperature right, detect motion, and determine pressure. But the possibilities of how sensors can be used and what they can detect are endless.

Infrared vision is one of those, whereby the sensors not only can detect leaks in houses, but also can be used by doctors to monitor blood flow, or can be used in the emergency management field to identify dangerous levels of chemicals.

In manufacturing, sensors continually measure the temperature of a machine to ensure it stays within a secure threshold. On a farm, sensors can be used to track the temperature of the soil, water, and plants and adjust based on needs.

One of this year’s most futuristic uses of sensors is Medtronic’s “artificial pancreas” system, the first medical device capable of automatically delivering insulin to patients when they need it. It works by using a sensor that monitors glucose levels in fluid under the skin. Reportedly, the device can adjust insulin delivery every five minutes.

For those who don’t want something inserted into their bodies, MIT researchers are developing color-changing tattoos that monitor blood sugar and other health problems. The tattoos use biosensing inks that scientists have developed to sense blood sugar levels, pH, and sodium by changing color to reflect body chemistry changes, according to a CBS News article. But the technology is still in the research phase and more testing is needed.

And, of course, self-driving cars couldn’t do what they do without at least 10 different technologies that make it happen. One of those, LiDAR – short for light detection and ranging – is the most well-known sensor that is mounted on the roof of a vehicle to provide 360-degree vision and accurate depth information. Little known fact: It was first used in archeology to provide mapping for large sections of land. It wasn’t until the 2000s that LiDAR was first used on cars.

And then there’s MaxBotix of Brainerd, which started making sensors in 2014 for hobbyists competing in robotics competitions. Now the company has expanded its line to include a wide array of industrial sensors – for kiosks, robotics, UAVs, vehicles, people, and parking garages.


Robots, sobots, cobots, chatbots – no matter what you call them or what they do – are making advancements in all facets of society.  On the shop floor, they aren’t replacing humans; rather, the workforce is helping to define how ‘bots can contribute more and do some of the mundane, heavy tasks.
According to the Robotics Industries Association (RIA), robotic companies in the U.S. posted the strongest ever first-quarter results in 2017, which includes both robot orders and shipments. “An all-time high total of 9,773 robots valued at approximately $516 million were ordered from North American robotics companies during the first quarter of 2017,” according to the association, “Order revenue grew 28 percent over the first quarter of last year. Robot shipments also reached new heights, with 8,824 robots valued at $494 million shipped to North American customers in the opening quarter of the year.”
Not surprisingly, growth in automotive-related industries is what’s behind the surge. “Robots ordered by automotive component suppliers were up 53 percent while orders by automotive OEMs increased 32 percent. Another good sign for the future of robotics was the continued growth in non-automotive industries like metals (54 percent), semiconductors/electronics (22 percent), and food and consumer goods (15 percent).”

Now, the U.S. Alliance in Robotics in Manufacturing (ARM) Institute has formulated a call to action to prepare the next generation of workers with the skills needed for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. “The key to ARM, and the other manufacturing innovation hubs, is collaboration,” according to the RIA. To that end, ARM is working to “democratize manufacturing, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises. The goal is to make automation and robotics more accessible.”

3-D Printing/Additive Manufacturing

The world of 3-D Printing/Additive Manufacturing is in constant motion, and one of the newest entries is hybrid manufacturing, which combines additive (3D printing) and subtractive (CNC milling).
Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies, in the U.K., recently introduced its Ambit multi-task tool system. The two-part process starts with the cladding process and once the tooling process is changed, the machine begins the CNC milling process.

Closer to home, Sodick Inc., of Illinois, has developed a single-process machine that combines laser metal sintering and high-speed milling within the same workspace. Evan Syverson, Additive Business Development Manager for Sodick, said that although many designers of 3-D printers gear their machines to aerospace and medical manufacturers, Sodick’s machine has a wider appeal.

“Hybrid milling opens up many new possibilities,” he explained. “The precision is achieved in the finishing phase, which is very important in order to make sure manufacturing tolerances are met no matter what industry you are involved in.”

The disruptive power of the method is in the ability to print and finish multiple parts simultaneously. “Instead of one part at a time, up to four parts at a time can be done,” he said. And as 3-D printing continues to evolve, Syverson believes that metal will be a high-growth area and an in-demand process. “The really successful shops are embracing this and making it a part of what they do. The technology is here and available now.”

Supply Chain Management

Big data and predictive analytics have huge implications in the supply chain, according to Dr. Matt Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Augmented reality, drones, 3-D printers, and IoT all have the potential to disrupt the supply chain, but without the proper application of big data, technology is not enough to overhaul the supply chain.

“The quantity, quality, and speed with which we get information today is astounding, but having the data is not enough because data itself is not a solution,” Waller said. “It requires filtering for accuracy and then application for things like forecasting demand or looking at where storing the inventory is most beneficial to supplier and retailer.”

Mike Franz, president and founder of Minneapolis-based, said it’s easy to get lost in the data, especially if you are a small to medium-sized manufacturer. That’s why he developed a tool that leverages group data. “Smaller manufacturers are in a time crunch, they are always doing more with less, and they need tools that are efficient, task-specific, and easy to use,” Franz explained.

Finding that real-time information traditionally has been difficult for small business owners, which is why Franz believes a collaborative method of sharing supply data with a community of small manufacturers is the wave of the future. That could lead to even more economies of cost for supply chain management in the future, such as logistics and technical support services, crowd sourcing, and Electronic Data Interface (EDI) transactions.

Embracing Disruption

All the experts agree: in order to keep up with the disruption, manufacturers need to ask questions, embrace innovation, and discover what opportunities for disruption work for them. Having a strategic plan that embraces disruption will ultimately allow the transformation needed to keep up with market demands and stay ahead of the curve.pm_endmarkblue-e1320337140493


“Discover Your Disruptive Advantage”:

“The Nano Revolution:”

“Technology continues to disrupt manufacturing, but better big data analytics needed:”

“The Power Suit: Not Just for Work:”

“Medronic Launches Latest Artificial Pancreas:”

“Hybrid Manufacturing Combines 3D Printing, Machining:”

“A Profile of Hybrid Additive Manufacturing Technology:”

“10 Futuristic Technology That May Come True Very Soon:”

“Is digital manufacturing the next industrial revolution?”

“DISRUPTION explores the tech that will shape the year ahead:”

“The State of Manufacturing: 2017 Outlook:”

“Futuristic view of advanced manufacturing in 2025:”

NANCY HUDDLESTON is the editor and publications manager for the Precision Manufacturing Journal. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2017 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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