We are at the beginning of a manufacturing arms race. The European Commission recently announced a €2 billion investment into ‘Factories of the Future’. President Obama earmarked US$1 billion for a network of 15 manufacturing innovation institutes across the US.
At stake is a huge portion of global trade. Figures suggest that 30 per cent of US imports from China could be produced in America by 2020. World labour markets are likely to convulse, as intensive factory work is replaced by local 3-D printing, using fractions of the human resource, while dramatically reducing waste and energy use.
Additive manufacture, as President Obama pointed out, ‘has the potential to revolutionize the way we make just about everything’.
So too does The Internet of Things (IoT) – a central element of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As a key driver of smart manufacturing, IoT is the latest iteration in the history of production automation, dating back to the automatic looms of the 19th century.
The modern day equivalent of Toyoda’s loom halting device
When Japanese industrialist Sakichi Toyoda, patriarch of the Toyota car family, invented the automatic stopping device for his power loom in the 1890s, it meant that a manager could supervise up to 30 looms, instead of one person per machine. This breakthrough had profound consequences for Japanese and European industrial productivity.
Today, managers like Ken Hislop at General Electric (GE) benefit from automatic text messages from the factory floor of GE’s vast battery manufacturing plant in Schenectady, New York, where he works. Using his iPad, Hislop can respond to the alert, reboot equipment and check operating status.
In the pharmaceutical market, sensors can alert distributors and retailers to temperature, humidity or out-of-date issues with products, using RFID tags, near field communication (NFC) technology or QR codes for example. A recent report from MarketsandMarkets predicts that the smart label sector will be worth $10 billion by 2020, based on annual increases of 15 per cent.
These advances are the modern day equivalent of Sakichi Toyoda’s loom halting device, employing technology to prevent problems and keep the wheels of industry turning through the night. Using the tools of Big Data, the new sensors and connectivity in manufacturing can produce exceptional energy savings and other innovative solutions to production issues, raising efficiency and profits.
A technology arms race
While direct employment on traditional production lines is sure to decrease, the multiplier effect of smart manufacturing is predicted to be significant, generating as much as four times as many indirect jobs as those in the factories, supporting the production process.
The arms race will centre on how effectively manufacturers adapt to these new conditions, harnessing the technology at their disposal and localising their operations as additive manufacturing and IoT enable smaller, more flexible and adaptable plants to evolve. A 3-D printer is not confined to producing one type of product, after all. It can employ multiple materials and limitless designs, downloaded in seconds.
This speed and ease of communication presents both threats and opportunities to smart manufacturers: designs are more vulnerable to piracy, placing the intellectual property of manufactured goods alongside music, TV and films as a new category for theft.
On the plus side, it enables manufacturers to respond to market trends, new technologies and materials at high speed. They can also manufacture objects that would have been physically impossible to make using traditional techniques.
There will be winners and losers in this manufacturing arms race, but the upshot should be cheaper, safer, higher quality and more accessible goods for all.