There’s been a lot of press in the last couple of years about “advanced manufacturing,” particularly in this region. What exactly is “advanced manufacturing?” According to Wikipedia, advanced manufacturing is the “use of innovative technology to improve products or processes.” That helps, doesn’t it? What is happening inside the production facility? Just as mass production techniques propelled industry forward in the 1900s, today’s manufacturers are ready for the next step—using high-tech tools to efficiently manipulate data. Developments in robotics, metal alloys, organic plastics and other innovative products are all being driven by information. Software is constantly being developed to take enormous amounts of information, process it and then do or create something.
Continued advancements in process and products require research. While the scientific process remains intact, the ability to capture and analyze data during the development process is perhaps the biggest driver of innovation. Once we understand what is happening and why, we can manipulate the data and design things to behave in specific ways, creating new products that will potentially change the manufacturing landscape.
For example, one of today’s most exciting developments is 3-D printing (additive manufacturing). One can actually make a solid object from raw materials by pushing a button. Think about the variables that need to be analyzed and controlled for this process to work. And, did you know that this technology has been around since the early 1980s? If you’ve had the opportunity to watch the process, it is really fascinating.
Recently, Oak Ridge Laboratories created a robotic titanium prosthesis hand through the use of 3-D printing technologyi. While the hand was assembled from 46 printed pieces, the next step is to use the technology to create the same product in one piece, without losing the dexterity, mobility or strength. Boeing and GE have also announced that they will apply this technology to make some of their products. The technology isn’t perfect and needs additional improvement before it is fully commercialized, but it seems to be just a matter of time before that happens. In fact, today’s advancements make a version of the technology available to everyone—for less than $1,000! Talk about being a basement inventor!
What about your company’s developments? How many new products or processes have you created in the last five years? What about your competitors?
[i] See May 2013 issue of Scientific American, “To Print the Impossible”, p.46.
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