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New Manufacturing Technologies Helping Create the ‘Smart’ Factory

Manufacturing innovations such as Blockchain, Additive Manufacturing, and Augmented Reality are a few of the hot new technologies that were discussed at the recent Society of Manufacturing Engineers-National Defense Industrial Association Technology Interchange Symposium.

Blockchain and Digital Thread

According to Forbes, Blockchain offers manufacturing great potential to deliver business value through increasing operational transparency across every area of manufacturing. From shop floor operations to the suppliers, manufacturers will be able to meet delivery dates, improve product quality, and boost sales by improving supplier order accuracy, product quality, and effective track-and-tracing technology.

“Companies generally lose $500 milllion a year in the counterfeit parts market,” said Chris Adkins, CSO at Identify 3D. “With cybersecurity, there’s always a level of vulnerability you’re going to have to live with.”

Adkins said although risks cannot be fully eliminated, there are ways to minimize risk.  Blockchain technology promises to tighten those gaps while delivering operational transparency.

However, not all supply chain partners are open to adopting blockchain technology.

“Think of this as recording data, sharing data across the supply chain,” Adkins said. “Information sharing poses one of the biggest obstacles. How do you convince suppliers to share core data?”

“Every process step should have traceable data, which allows you to have analytics. Although you might not be able to stop hacking, the information will allow you to find who stole it.”

Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing is the official industry standard term for all applications of the technology. It is defined as the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data.

Essentially, it is printing 3D copies of replacement parts. The ability to produce manufacturing aids, such as jigs or fixtures increases efficiencies and reduces costly traditional machining.

When properly implemented, additive manufacturing can significantly reduce material waste, streamline production steps, and reduce the amount of inventory and specific parts needed for an assembly.

Augmented Reality

According to the Franklin Institute, augmented reality is one of the biggest technology trends and it’s only going to get bigger as AR-ready smartphones and other devices become more accessible. A popular example of AR technology is the “Pokémon Go” mobile phone app.

All fun and games aside, there are many everyday applications for AR. Enhanced navigation systems use AR to superimpose a route over the live view of the road. A helmet visor AR that projects altitude, speed, and other data allows fighter pilots to keep their focus without the need to glance down at the instrument panel.

Smart glasses are a great example of Augmented Reality technology. Lightweight and durable, smart glasses fit easily over regular prescription glasses, or they can be worn alone.

Tech support calls can be made directly from the glasses using a voice command feature, which keeps both hands-on equipment repair or calibration, without taking one’s hands off the machinery.

For the factory floor, the peer-to-peer calling features enables the repair tech to see exactly what the shop floor specialist is seeing. Precise, effective repairs and shorter equipment downtime easily translates into dollars and cents.

Enhancements in the manufacturing technology landscape promise to deliver first time quality, the kind of quality that’s crucial for the warfighter.

Technology Changing the Way Factories Are Operated

It’s a great time to be in manufacturing and Huntsville is quickly becoming the pre-eminent manufacturing hub of the South.

Advancements in technology promise to deliver solid returns on investment while realizing cost savings over the long haul. 

As technology continues its rapid growth and development trajectory, the shop floors are becoming “smart factories” to meet demands for high quality, low cost, and speed.

Modern-day production facilities bear little resemblance to the factories of our parents or grandparents.

For a manufacturing plant embracing new technology, the highest costs are faced on the front end: acquisition, transition, training, and implementing. This is usually the sticking point when it comes to adopting new technology, especially when companies have been working with Lean and Six Sigma methodologies, with some measure of success.

“Innovation matters and it has a big impact,” said James Crean, CEO of Austin, Texas-based Crean Innovation. “Hoping that it doesn’t happen is not a solution.”

Speaking at the recent Technology Interchange Symposium hosted by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and the National Defense Industrial Association Manufacturing Division, Crean said several former industry giants, such as Sears’ and Kodak’s “failure to capitalize on the online revolution, combined with the inability to innovate processes and service offerings caused them to fail.”

Some, like the United States Postal Service, he said, “literally need an act of Congress to innovate.”

Crean discussed the business life cycle and need for innovation and continuous improvement.

“Company mortality is accelerating the growth-peak-decline cycle; the average business lifecycle is now 7 to 10 years,” said Crean. “This negatively impacts the supply chain, such as acquiring parts, for example. If a business doesn’t make innovation a part of their business plan, they risk extinction.

“Are they even going to be in business in five years?

“Continuous improvement must continuously evolve,” said Crean. “Digital transformation cannot be ignored; companies and their suppliers must not fall behind. Lean programs are no longer sufficient. Six Sigma can only take us so far. In fact, we’re getting left behind.”

And it’s not just companies, it’s countries, as well.

“Back in the ‘70s, Japan started eating our lunch in the auto and electronics industries,” said Crean. “Then, the Chinese entered the electronics market with faster and cheaper products. Japan failed to adopt driver assist, now the Chinese are the industry leaders.”

He said, “Product is good, but process is just as important. Smart factory goes beyond the factory floor. You can’t focus on the factory floor alone. Digital transformation cannot be ignored; companies and their suppliers must not fall behind. America must lead the Smart Factory transformation. We have to disrupt ourselves. If we don’t do it, China or another country will.

“As a national security imperative, it is critical that the U.S. lead the global industrial base. The countries with a smart factory base will dominate the defense markets.”