The Third Industrial Revolution

Thursday, May 17, 2012

 Digital Manufacturing
From the year 2000 to 2010 the number of manufacturing jobs in America fell by about a third. The rise of outsourcing and offshoring and the growth of sophisticated supply chains has enabled companies the world over to use China, India and other lower-wage countries as workshops. Now, the global financial crisis has people thinking it is time their countries returned to making stuff in order to create jobs and prevent more manufacturing skills from being lost. These factors, and technologies like robotics, 3D printing and artificial intelligence could help bring about a Third Industrial Revolution.
If you are an inventor or designer today, try to ask a manufacturer to make you a single hammer to you designed and you will be presented with a bill for thousands of dollars. The makers would have to produce a mould, cast the head, machine it to a suitable finish, turn a wooden handle and then assemble the parts. To do that for one hammer would be prohibitively expensive. If you are producing thousands of hammers, each one of them will be much cheaper, thanks to economies of scale.

For a 3D printer, though, economies of scale matter much less. The software operating it can be endlessly tweaked and it can make just about anything. The cost of setting up the machine is the same whether it makes one thing or as many things as can fit inside the machine; like a two-dimensional office printer that pushes out one letter or many different ones until the ink cartridge and paper need replacing, it will keep going, at about the same cost for each item.

The consequences these changes and others, amounts to a third industrial revolution. The first began in Britain in the late 18th century with the mechanisation of the textile industry. In the following decades the use of machines to make things, instead of crafting them by hand, spread around the world. The second industrial revolution began in America in the early 20th century with the assembly line, which ushered in the era of mass production.

3D printing, and other rapid prototyping technologies combined with intelligent software are described by Paul Markillie of the Economist as drivers of a third industrial revolution.  Jeremy Rifkin also uses the term (although his main focus is on energy), and both writers point to the new rise of decentralized, global and individualized manufacturing and economic systems now coming on stream.  Rifkin's The Third Industrial Revolution explores how Internet technology and renewable energy are merging factors in the future too.

Factories are becoming vastly more efficient, thanks to automated milling machines that can swap their own tools, cut in multiple directions and “feel” if something is going wrong, together with robots equipped with vision and other sensing systems. Nissan’s British factory in Sunderland, opened in 1986, is now one of the most productive in Europe. In 1999 it built 271,157 cars with 4,594 people. Last year it made 480,485 vehicles—more than any other car factory in Britain, ever—with just 5,462 people.

Canon also recently stated that their digital camera production would soon be 100 percent automated.  With robots taking over for manual labour, the trend of the past few decades of moving production offshore will soon become potentially irrelevant.  Companies have to calculate whether shipping costs outweigh the benefits of overseas production.

Robotics itself is becoming more affordable, flexible, efficient and intelligent.  Heartland Robotics, the company founded by Rodney Brooks, is expected to start shipping industrial robots next year for a cost around $5000 US.  This will potentially allow smaller businesses and start-ups to automate production easier.  Furthermore, unlike human workers who can only perform a limited amount of work per day, a robot never tires.  The cost of labour vs. the cost of procuring and deploying robotic systems will even make countries like China and India soon adopt automated systems.

Moreover, mass production cycles are becoming ever compressed to keep up with technological progress, competitive factors and consumer tastes.  Manufacturing lines have to be flexible and customizable to allow for overnight production changes.  Programmable robots therefore make good sense for this type of industrial environment.

The materials being used to make things are changing as well. Carbon-fibre composites, for instance, are replacing steel and aluminium in products ranging from mountain bikes to airliners. And sometimes it will not be machines doing the making, but micro-organisms that have been genetically engineered for the task.

Everything in the factories of the future will be run by intelligent software systems. Digitisation in manufacturing will have a disruptive effect every bit as big as in other industries that have gone digital, such as office equipment, telecommunications, photography, music, publishing and films.

The effects will not be confined to large manufacturers; they will need to watch out because much of what is coming will empower small and medium-sized firms and individual entrepreneurs. Launching novel products will become easier and cheaper. Communities offering 3D printing and other production services that are a bit like Facebook are already forming online—a new phenomenon which Markillie calls social manufacturing.

As manufacturing goes digital, a third great change is now gathering pace. It will allow things to be made economically in much smaller numbers, more flexibly and with a much lower input of labour, thanks to new materials, completely new processes such as 3D printing, easy-to-use robots and new collaborative manufacturing services available online. The wheel is almost coming full circle, turning away from mass manufacturing and towards much more individualised production. And that in turn could bring some of the jobs back to rich countries that long ago lost them to the developing nations.

Markillie writes that manufacturing revolutions never happen overnight, but this one is already well under way. There is enough transformative research going on as well that will alter the what and how of manufacturing in the years to come.


SOURCE  The Economist

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