Manufacturing for the future

The 21st century marketplace is evolving. With that evolution comes a drive to survive, with the use of nascent technologies such as advanced manufacturing technologies (AMTs) offering a path to optimum quality and productivity. agendaNi assesses the evolution in manufacturing, and how Northern Ireland can adapt for future success.

The United Kingdom’s imminent departure from the single customs union, ongoing international trade wars and an increasingly fragmented consumer market has transformed the global manufacturing sector as we know it. Overarching these circumstantial conditions is a technological revolution which is driving industry innovators to compete across several dimensions, including design, distribution, communication and most significantly, manufacturing. Indeed, manufacturing is widely predicted to take a crucial role in Northern Ireland’s future competitive world, where it has grown almost three times faster than the rest of the UK and accounts for 11 per cent of employment in the region.

A marker of civilisation

The progress of human civilisation has consistently been defined by the technology available to it. Recent years have seen unprecedented changes: product life cycles have been drastically shortened, and high-quality products are available at more competitive prices. What’s more, the variety offered to the technology consumer is vaster than ever before. The current ‘golden age’ of technology has been largely prompted by a collective aspiration to use computerised automation and other emerging technologies as a solution to manufacturing challenges.

The advent of advanced manufacturing technology has led to a gradual replacement of mass production in favour of low-volume, yet high variety production. Flexibility has been championed as the key factor in satisfying an increasingly pluralistic market, and that underlying concept is proving itself as the catalyst behind the emergence of more automated and integrated methods of manufacturing. It has become clear that the adoption of automated projects will be imperative to the future survival of key industry players in Northern Ireland and beyond.

Substantial progressions in automation, additive manufacturing and industrial robotics over recent years are impacting upon every stage of the manufacturing journey, and Northern Ireland has been to the forefront of that research and development. However, developments in more established elements of technology, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, virtual reality and augmented reality have contributed to and complemented the evolution of physical manufacturing. Whilst manufacturers are employing robotics and automation in the pursuit of lower operating costs and improved efficiency, visual and interconnective technologies are increasingly recognised as essential partners to AMT.

Of these essential partners, IoT-enabled technology is emerging as one of the most important in regard to the evolution of advanced manufacturing. The technology, enabled by complex algorithms and database management techniques allows for the planning and tracking of millions of individual products making their way through the various stages of the manufacturing process. Pieces of machinery, which were in the past free from any internet connection, are now fully interconnected with their surrounding network. The possibilities granted by the emerging technology are vast: real-time traceability has created a space to efficiently manage logistics, whilst preventing fraudulent imitations from reaching high-street shelves. Local centres of excellence in Belfast and further afield in Derry have championed cross-sector innovation in this field, as the forward march of the technology continues.

Factories for the future

Beyond the functions of scanning, logging and organising, IoT-enabled manufacturing technology can contribute to the modern concept of the ‘smart factory’ – facilities connected to online infrastructure, enabling both remote monitoring and a new level of automated machinery. The remote monitoring and synchronisation of machinery function is facilitated by the capabilities of ‘big data’: manufacturing facilities are becoming increasingly confident in the collection and aggregation of huge swathes of data, which are measured and analysed to further enhance productivity and efficiency. IoT-enabled technology works at its best when integrated with other technologies in a manufacturing context, and continuous developments in the field of artificial intelligence are expected to transform the role of IoT, near-field communication (NFC) and big data in the future competitive arena.

Traditional methods of manufacturing are facing an eclipse by evolving technologies such as automation and 3D printing. Credit: Daniel Wiadro.

Whilst automation is developing rapidly thanks to IoT capability and artificially intelligent technologies, it has long been a prominent feature in the landscape of manufacturing. The benefits of automation have long been enjoyed across several industries, where previously manually operated end products now operated solely by technology, including self-driving cars and fully-automated bulldozers. However, as machine learning continues to develop, manufacturing will be transformed: robotic machinery will be able to evaluate tasks and react accordingly, deciding for themselves what is required, adjusting their behaviour and even troubleshooting and repairing their own issues. In a future where human labour faces replacement by AMTs, a debate will almost certainly arise surrounding ‘positive automation’ and the concept of responsible AI. Indeed, this debate has been kickstarted by a recent report from Ulster University Economic Policy Centre, which suggested that 450,000 jobs in Northern Ireland may be affected by automation.

Manufacturing transformed

It is important to note that AMTs are not limited to automated machine production and data analytics. Virtual and augmented reality (AR and VR) has allowed innovators in manufacturing to effectively simulate the production process, identifying situations which may present danger to human operators. This has been a success story in the case of Ford, who have used AR and VR to reduce accident rates by over 70 per cent. Indeed, using eyewear that embeds cameras, motion sensors and depth monitors to place augmented images into a working environment has, in many cases, transformed the working routine of engineers and assembly line workers internationally. Smaller firms with tighter budgets currently face financial obstacles in employing AR and VR. However, consolation can be taken from the continuous fall in the technology’s price; a trend which should continue into the future. Furthermore, it should be noted that those companies who employ AR and VR at later stages will be working with the most revised and fully updated products on offer.

Whilst the capabilities of IoT, Big Data and AR/VR offer enhanced efficiency, other elements of advanced manufacturing allow for enhanced quality. Additive manufacturing through the medium of 3D printing continues to evolve, allowing manufacturers to create 3D models and tangible objects from a blueprint of digital data. Photopolymer collides with UV lasers, instantly creating a strong plastic. In 2018, the technology ranges in complexity, from home kits that print with a single material, to industrial machines of a metamaterial equivalent.

The implications for manufacturing are huge, and the technology has been used across many sectors, including architecture, prosthetics and most recently surgical medicine, where organs have been constructed for transplant patients. Now recognised as the ‘sixth manufacturing process’, additive manufacturing has broken through as a mainstream process, and the employment of metal in 3D printing has been recognised as the final achievement which will drive a truly global impact. Widespread additive manufacturing is already at hand across Europe, and Northern Ireland certainly appears to be a future leader in the sector.

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