New technologies growing: Robotics, 3-D, big data

Information technology helped fuel manufacturing’s major productivity improvements in previous decades.

Now the industry is poised for a new wave of productivity gains, according to McKinsey Global Institute’s report, “Manufacturing the future: The next era of global growth and innovation.”

Cited as technologies boosting productivity are robotics, 3-D printing and big data – huge data sets with the ability to capture, curate, manage and process quickly. These data sets consist of terabytes to petabytes (the 5th power of 1,000).

For manufacturers, big data could include feedback from customers, information from the Internet, and feedback from machines and processes, according to McKinsey.

Apache’s Hadoop, an open-source software library, is the basis for many customized applications, similar to the use of Linux in the past. IBM, for example, is building big data systems based on Hadoop. Its Big Data Hub presents information about the work company is doing in this arena.

Computer chip manufacturer Intel devoted its annual report to IT initiatives that are driving company growth and value. A five-person research team is using big data gleaned from social media and Web information to investigate design, security and department performance.

As a result, time-to-market has been shortened through a 25 percent reduction in chip validation time. Possible new security threats have been identified. User interfaces have been created so that the sales department, for example, can easily search big data and generate revenue and demand reports. Intel reports that its big-data initiatives generated a return of $10 million in six months.

Another example of a big-data process application is product traceability. Beyond being stamped with a lot number, product traceability can include operational and process data from machine activity during the manufacturing of that specific part. Diagnostics help further narrow the problem that caused a defect. Resource use and efficiency can also be tracked.

Due to falling costs, use of robotics in industry is expected to grow 26 percent by 2014, according to McKinsey. Favored by such industries as automotive and electronics, robots speed up repetitive processes, improve consistency, address ergonomic concerns, and increase productivity. The complexity and variety of tasks robots can perform are expected to continue evolving, making the application of the technology more widespread.

3-D printing is another technology that promises to boost manufacturing output. Also called additive manufacturing, 3-D printing quickly builds models and prototypes by laying down small amounts of paper, metal or polymers. This is in contrast to machining, which removes materials. This capability provides a way to quickly and inexpensively test and modify designs developed in CAD programs.

A wide variety of industries now use 3-D, from food to clothing to architecture to aerospace to healthcare. The processes are widely variable. Lasers and laminating are two common 3-D techniques.

There is even a 3-D printer called the CandyFab that uses food grade sugar to make items. Some users are going beyond modeling to product creation. For example, graduate students at UCLA’s school of Architecture and Urban Design use a technique called selective laser sintering to build customized lightweight wrist splints. Medical research firms are building models from actual cells to serve as transplants.

Although 3-D has been around since the 1970s, it is becoming more mainstream. A small 3-D printer is even available at Best Buy for $1,599. Truly, the applications for this technology seem endless. As it develops, costs will come down and the opportunity to custom-create and sell objects such as casts, splints, parts and clothing will expand.

McKinsey makes the point that maximizing the benefit of new technologies requires a proper alignment of company operations. With intensive data gathering and sharing, communication is more important than ever.

As companies strive to be more responsive to customers and continue innovating themselves, the design, production and sales functions become even more dependent on shared intelligence.