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7 new developments that will soon change the face of manufacturing

As 2013 is drawing to a close, let’s have a look at some of the events and inventions driving manufacturing today. Here is a quick rundown of some trends that we are now seeing and that are sure to have a more significant effect on industry soon.

Private spaceflight

Liftoff of Falcon 9 rocket

Demo flight of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket

Space flight began with competition between the two world powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Vast sums were poured into space programs, first to get a satellite into orbit, then to get a man into orbit and then, of course, an all-out race to put a man on the moon. With that feat accomplished, the comptetitive spirit was subdued as the realities of the vast sums involved sunk in. But with the end of the space shuttle program we’re witnessing the rebirth of competition in space flight, but this time it’s what we would consider to be healthy commercial competition. A Dragon spacecraft by SpaceX last year became the first privately constructed and operated craft to bring supplies to the International Space Station. The company plans to reuse its rockets to keep costs down.

SpaceX now has competition from another private firm, Orbital Sciences, which recently became the second private carrier to bring supplies to the ISS. While the days of high profile space shuttle missions may be a thing of the past, the introduction of free enterprise in space will open a whole new chapter. A supply chain of vendors to the private space contractors will soon be expanding with an entirely different outlook than the current government suppliers.

3D Printing

Nasa's Desert RATS lunar/Mars explorer prototype uses 3D printed components

Nasa’s Desert RATS space exploration vehicle prototype uses about 70 3D printed components

First it was switching from the drawing board to CAD. Now we’re seeing new developments in 3D printing that can create ready-to-use components with very few intermediate steps. 3D printing has been around in a form for years, but the end product had to be produced by subsequent processes. For example, a wax pattern could be made by 3D printing that could then be used to produce investment cast parts. But with the advent of equipment that can produce usable parts directly by 3D printing, the face of manufacturing will change as it becomes practical to reduce run sizes down to one. An operator can produce a different part at every machine cycle just as efficiently as the old way produced hundreds or thousands of parts. The reduction in inventory and manufacturing lead times is going to need a whole rethink of manufacturing processes. Protoyping will take on a whole new meaning and new markets will open up for production of complex and unique one-off parts, such as medical prostheses.

Industrial Internet

With the Industrial Internet, all of an organization’s machines  and operations can be networked together and a multitude of sensors send in a constant stream of data about every aspect of operations. Considerable computing power is needed crunch all this data but it means predictve information can be gathered that has never before been available. Decision-making can be much better informed and real time data analysis can reduce the need for safety buffers that are really excuses for not knowing what’s actually going on – organizations that are running “lean” operations will love to hear this.

Some examples of where the Industrial Internet is already being used is in jet engines and power grids. Airlines can report flight data to jet engine manufacturers who can analyse and predict engine wear and fuel consumption. Electricity grid operators can predict consumption cycles of individual houses, providing much more precise data on network load and capacity requirements.

Internet of Things

The Internet of Things refers to sensors and actuators in everyday objects that are wired to the internet.  It has been developing quietly for years but is now becoming an even greater theme. Airbus has come out with luggage that has an aircraft-compatible GPS sensor and transmitter connected to the internet via the cell phone system. This means travellors always know where their bag is – no more lost luggage. Some billboards monitor passersby and digitally analyse their profile, adjusting the marketing message accordingly. RFID tags attached to a company’s physical assets and inventory mean it can be tracked at all times. These inputs generate “Big Data” which takes big computing power to analyse, but the results are more efficiency and less waste.


With increases in available computing power has come more realistic and more in-depth simulation. This can have a dramatic effect on a manufacturer’s path from invention to market, since it’s often much faster to run a simulation than to build a prototype. In some cases, such as pharmaceuticals testing where opposition to testing on animals makes simulation advantageous, it can open whiole new fields. Vehicle crash simulation can point up areas for improvement that could not be found any other way. Even software simulation has a place, with a programmatic simulated user running a new application through all potential cycles.

Collaborative Robots

Baxter, the friendly robot from Rethink Robotics

Baxter, the friendly collaborative robot from Rethink Robotics


Robots have now been around for years, replacing humans to do inhumane tasks such as welding and painting in dangerous environments. But the robots themselves were dangerous and would be segregated behind fences and sensors that would shut them off if anyone ventured within reach of their powerful but unthinking arms, typically shutting down the entire production line. Now collaborative robots are entering the scene, with optical and sonar sensors that sense the presence of a human colleague. They can even be fitted with a tactile “skin” to detect a slap from a human nearby or a microphone to pick up a spoken command or a shout. Collaborative robots can work closely with a human worker, doing part of a job that might otherwise take two people but where one is simply holding or positioning a part or component. Others can do their work, such as riveting an aircraft fuselage or packaging goods, while other workers are around, slowing or stopping when humans get too close. Learning algorithms mean no programming is required, an operator can simply step the robot through its paces and it will learn.

Wearable computing

A natural progression from smartphones, wearable computing is showing up in smartwatches, computerized eyeglasses and e-textiles. Accompanying wearable computing is the related network between devices, such as the well-known Bluetooth network. The WPAN – Wireless Personal Area Network – includes Bluetooth and infrared communication. Medical applications are being developed using the WBAN – Wireless Body Area Network – which can communicate physiological data such as vital signs or movement to medical personnel caring for a patient. A very practical application of wearable computing is a safety jacket worn by miners in Chile which will continuously monitor and report both the underground mine environment and workers’ vital signs via WiFi to the company’s above ground offices, providing safer conditions in mines and reducing fatalities.

These are just a selection of the new developments underway at this time and they will undoubtedly bear observation by anyone who is concerned to keep in touch with where manufacturing is heading.

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