October 8, 2014

Manufacturing in the 21st Century

Filed under: Articles + Blogs — smeyer @ 7:08 pm

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Manufacturing is still the largest sector in the US Economy, notwithstanding the disrespect shown by some politicians who ought to know better.  Manufacturing accounts for 20% of all economic activity, about $5.8 Trillion dollars.  That’s big.

Even bigger is the change in manufacturing that is currently taking place.  There are several major trends occurring the will take us into new territory.  The future however near, cannot be accurately predicted, because it hasn’t happened yet.

The assembly line method and centralized manufacturing that created low cost automobiles for everyone has reached it’s limits.  There are a lot of complex issues to dissect, but the cost of transportation, the ability to scale manufacturing to massive volumes are guiding principles that are no longer as effective as they used to be.  Sometimes smaller is better.

Some markets will never be in the millions of units per year.  These markets suffer from dis-economies of scale in which it is hard to bear the capital equipment cost to serve smaller markets.  3D printing is a major force that allows new businesses to emerge by reducing the barriers to entry in many markets.  3D printing has already begun to scale to meet low volume, high complexity part production for aerospace and down hole oil & gas applications.  This trend will undoubtedly continue as machine costs decrease and materials become more diverse.

The convergence of Information Technology and Manufacturing Technology is another major force that will change manufacturing forever.  Product tracking from start to finish, the ability to connect manufacturing resources to order entry, cost control will become standard operating conditions.  With the more compute power available on the plant floor, control system cost and complexity will continue to decline, which will be a tricky issue for some large control suppliers.

All of the forgoing is driving manufacturing to become dramatically more efficient.  Less menial labor is required in the mix of labor and equipment required to produce most products.  This trend is necessary in order for the US to compete worldwide with low cost labor markets.  Declining costs in robots will impact this trend although precision, repetitive tasks especially in dangerous atmospheres will be the primary focus.

We need to understand the trends and create the new tools that will be needed to increase productivity, lower costs and simplify the transition from the 20th model of manufacturing to the new 21st century model, whatever that will be.

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