A new educational term is fully underway. Schoolchildren have now found their natural rhythm, while freshers are beginning to find their feet in the world of higher education. So, as the younger generation embarks on another year of learning, it may also be an opportunity for manufacturers to take stock of recent developments in the industry, and how they might employ the latest advances in technology to improve efficiencies and productivity, and meet evolving customer demands.
Indeed, although many manufacturing businesses have embarked on a form of digital transformation to do just this, the current outlook for the industry in the UK does not inspire. While the most recent Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) (opens in new tab) from IHS Markit suggests a ‘mild improvement’ in its performance on the previous quarter, conditions in the industry are described as remaining ‘relatively lacklustre’.
Manufacturers should, therefore, educate themselves on the current state of the sector, and what they can do to address the doldrums in which the industry finds itself, and turn the situation around.
Advanced manufacturing techniques
First, it’s worth noting the extent to which digital manufacturing technology has evolved over recent years, and how it allows manufacturers to meet customer demands for high quality products that meet their specific requirements, and that are delivered at the fastest possible speed.
The turnaround process is faster than could ever have been previously imagined, and it is now possible for customers to receive components or finished parts within just a matter of days of submitting a design via an online CAD upload system. What’s more, depending on their particular criteria, customers are able to choose the advanced manufacturing technique that best suits their needs.
CNC machining, for example, is a process in which computers are used to control high-speed milling and turning tools, and tends to be a popular choice for the manufacture of parts for commercial and industrial equipment and machinery. It may not be suitable for every business, however, when differing economies of scales, customer demands, part geometries and technical requirements might mean that 3D printing is a more appropriate technique.
More well known
3D printing is the most well-known manufacturing technique, with regular news stories illustrating its capacity to produce human organs, prosthetic limbs, and even food. Used to create intricate, complex geometrical shapes, many of which demand great dimensional tolerances, the technology offers manufacturers a level of flexibility that allows them to reimagine how they design the various components that make up their products. In addition, its potential for creating an almost limitless variety of finished parts and prototypes can eliminate the expense associated with producing a range of machine tools.
In certain circumstances, it can be advantageous to employ both techniques. CNC machining can be employed as an add-on to fine tune 3D printed objects, for example, and the two processes can be used in conjunction to meet increasingly tough design challenges, such as the demand for components and products to be ever more lightweight.
Ultimately, although one technique is better known than the other, both are equally important in addressing the needs of an industry required to create effective high-quality parts and products, faster and more efficiently than ever before.
Further opportunities for efficiencies and cost savings can be gained from the Internet of Things (IoT), the adoption of which, with an 84 percent annual growth (opens in new tab) in network connections, is being dominated by the manufacturing industry.
As this level of adoption continues to grow, factory floors will become increasingly connected, and valuable information around factors such as product usage, production capabilities, and market and customer requirements will be shared and analysed faster than was ever previously possible. Such information, and the insight its analysis provides, will enable manufacturers to transform their production processes and operating models, thereby improving the speed and quality of their offering in line with customer demand.
Capturing and analysing this critical information will also allow manufacturing businesses to predict the future trends and challenges that might impact factory floor operations. Indeed, by combining two of the biggest developments in digital technology, the IoT and big data, many businesses are already successfully enhancing the quality of their processes and products. What’s more, by embracing their benefits, they are unlocking the potential of Industry 4.0.
Pushing the boundaries
Probably the most important evolutionary step in manufacturing in recent years, the term Industry 4.0 refers to the trend towards web-connected manufacturing processes, based on robotics and automation to deliver unparalleled levels of productivity, quality, and efficiency.
Given the impact that this, in addition to digital manufacturing techniques and the IoT, will have on the factory floor, Industry 4.0 is more than just a different approach to manufacturing. By enabling them to both acknowledge and address the importance placed on short lead times, on-demand production, and mass customisation, for example, Industry 4.0 offers manufacturers of any size the opportunity to compete on a global stage.
To support these new capabilities, however, and capitalise on the opportunities they represent, businesses will need to consider additional investment. New software will be required, and integrated with existing processes; back-office systems may need upgrading, and customer-facing web applications developed. Employees will need to adapt and develop their current skills in order to keep up with and support the rapidly developing technology, gaining expertise in robotics, automation, and the latest digital manufacturing techniques.
Technology is continuing to push the boundaries of conventional manufacturing; production facilities are slowly being replaced by ‘smart’ factories, and employees can often find themselves spending more time at a computer than hands-on with traditional manufacturing equipment.
Digital manufacturing, with its ever growing and changing series of connections, processes, and advanced production technologies, is key to the transformation that the industry needs right now. Education is important to ensure that manufacturing businesses remain up to date with its evolution, and that they have the necessary techniques, connections and training in place to fully embrace Industry 4.0, and once again set the industry on an upward trajectory.
Stephen Dyson is head of Industry 4.0, Protolabs (opens in new tab)