BACK IN THE 1980s, when America's carmakers feared they might be overwhelmed by Japanese competitors, many in Detroit had a vision of beating their rivals with “lights-out” manufacturing. The idea was that factories would become so highly automated that the lights could be turned off and the robots left to build cars on their own. It never happened. Japan's advantage, it turned out, lay not in automation but in lean-production techniques, which are mostly people-based.
Many of the new production methods in this next revolution will require fewer people working on the factory floor. Thanks to smarter and more dexterous robots, some lights-out manufacturing is now possible. FANUC, a big Japanese producer of industrial robots, has automated some of its production lines to the point where they can run unsupervised for several weeks. Many other factories use processes such as laser cutting and injection moulding that operate without any human intervention. And additive manufacturing machines can be left alone to print day and night.
Yet manufacturing will still need people, if not so many in the factory itself. All these automated machines require someone to service them and tell them what to do. Some machine operators will become machine minders, which often calls for a broader range of skills. And certain tasks, such as assembling components, remain too fiddly for robots to do well, which is why assembly is often subcontracted to low-wage countries.
Industrial robots are getting better at assembly, but they are expensive and need human experts to set them up (who can cost more than the robot). They have a long way to go before they can replace people in many areas of manufacturing. Investing in robots can be worthwhile for mass manufacturers like carmakers, who remain the biggest users of such machines, but even in highly automated car factories people still do most of the final assembly. And for small and medium-sized businesses robots are generally too costly and too inflexible.
But the next generation of robots will be different. Not only will they be cheaper and easier to set up, they will work with people rather than replacing them. They will fetch and carry parts, hold things, pick up tools, sort items, clean up and make themselves useful in myriad other ways.
Various efforts are under way to produce such robots, especially for smaller companies. Germany's Fraunhofer Institute, for instance, is involved in a European initiative to develop robots that are safe enough to operate alongside workers (at present, most industrial robots still have to be caged in case they accidentally hit someone) and capable of understanding simple instructions, including voice commands.
The present generation of factory robots is akin to early mainframe computers in offices, reckons Rodney Brooks, a co-founder of iRobot, an American firm whose products include the Roomba, a robotic vacuum-cleaner, as well as military robots. Those big computers were run by experts, a long way away from most users, until personal computers arrived. “But the PC didn't get rid of office workers, it changed the tasks they did,” says Mr Brooks. Often that meant doing more sophisticated work. In 2008 he founded Heartland Robotics to produce a range of machines that would serve as the equivalent of the PC in robotics.
Mr Brooks's lips are sealed about what these machines will be like, although his views about the future of robotics provides a clue. As Toyota discovered with lean manufacturing, production-line workers, given the chance, can come up with plenty of good ideas to improve productivity. If people on the factory floor or in workshops are provided with easy-to-use robots they can become more productive, says Mr Brooks. Bring together these new robots with innovative manufacturing technologies, and you could get a manufacturing renaissance.
Millions of small and medium-sized firms will benefit from new materials, cheaper robots, smarter software, an abundance of online services and 3D printers
That would make things easier for start-ups, but scaling up is notoriously difficult because the capital costs of equipping a factory are often too high for investors to stomach, or the payback period is too long. In some businesses advanced production technologies could bring down those costs, reckons Martin Schmidt, an electrical-engineering expert at MIT. Mr Schmidt has started a number of companies that make tiny devices such as miniature sensors. He thinks that the production equipment for such devices might be shrunk too, even to tabletop size, cutting capital costs. In industries where that happens, says Mr Schmidt, “I think we will see some disruption.”
Mass-produced goods will continue to be made in factories using traditional subtractive methods for a long time yet, although with increasing automation and flexibility, as practised by the mass-market carmakers. There will also be some super-high-tech factories, like those of GE and Rolls-Royce, that make smaller quantities of highly specialised products such as jet engines. There will be millions of small and medium-sized firms that will benefit from new materials, cheaper robots, smarter software, an abundance of online services and 3D printers that can economically produce things in small numbers. And there will be countless entrepreneurs in little workshops, homes and, no doubt, garages who will be able to do things they could never have done before.
Getting there
Manufacturing revolutions never happen overnight, but this one is already well under way. There is enough transformative research going on in the biological sciences and in nanotechnology to spawn entirely new industries, like making batteries from viruses. And if the use of carbon-fibre composites were to spread from sports cars to more workaday models, the huge steel-stamping presses and robot welding lines would vanish from car factories.
Additive manufacturing, like anything else digital, is already becoming both cheaper and more effective. The big breakthrough would be in workflow. At present 3D printers make things one at a time or in small batches. But if they could work in a continuous process—like the pill-making machine in the Novartis-MIT laboratory—they could be used on a moving production line. The aim would be to build things faster and more flexibly rather than to achieve economies of scale. Such a line could be used to build products that are too big to fit into existing 3D printers and, because the machine is digitally controlled, a different item could be built on each platform, making mass customisation possible. That would allow the technology to take off.
Can it be done? Back to the EuroMold exhibition, where TNO, an independent research group based in the Netherlands, showed a novel machine with 100 platforms travelling around a carousel in a continuous loop. A variety of 3D-printing heads would deposit plastics, metals or ceramics onto each platform as they pass to make complete products, layer by layer. Scale up the idea, straighten out the carousel and you have a production line with multiple printing heads.
The “Hammering Man” outside the Frankfurt Messe is still bashing away at his piece of metal. But in a decade or two visitors to future industrial fairs may wonder what he is doing.