By Michael D. White, author and freelance writer
Manufacturers “looking to capture growth and protect long-term profitability should embrace digital capabilities from corporate functions to the factory floor,” advises international business consultant, Deloitte in its 2022 Advanced Manufacturing Forecast.
“Smart factories, including greenfield and brownfield investments for many manufacturers, are viewed as one of the keys to driving competitiveness” while “more organizations are making progress and seeing results from more connected, reliable, efficient, and predictive processes at the plant.”
In 2022, 45 percent of manufacturing executives surveyed by the firm “expect further increases in operational efficiency from investments in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) that connect machines and automate processes. Emerging and evolving use cases can continue to scale up from isolated in-house technology projects to full production lines or factories, given the right mix of vision and execution.”
For example, one heavy equipment manufacturer has been accelerating convergence of “man, machine, and method” by optimizing performance using sensors to track assets and connecting its machinery to the cloud to enable real-time insights on maintenance.
Others, the company found, “have been transforming brownfield facilities with IIoT, robotics, automation platforms, and AI-enabled tools to support production.”
Deloitte concludes, “U.S. manufacturers have room to run with advanced manufacturing compared to many competitors globally. Advanced global ‘lighthouse’ factories showcase the art of the possible in bringing smart manufacturing to scale.”
Investment in the increasingly expanding universe of manufacturing technology, it said, “can continue to transform operations…while foundational technologies such as cloud computing enable computational power, visibility, scale, and speed.”
The Additive Component
Riding the crest of the industry-wide wave to optimize manufacturing performance is additive manufacturing or 3D printing—an increasingly ascendant module of advanced manufacturing.
In simple terms, 3D printing utilizes a building material—usually plastic or resin in the case of a desktop 3D printer or concrete in the case of a much larger structure like a building—to lay down successive layers of the material until the desired object is produced.
A model of the object is created through ‘additive’ processes in which a computer program to guide the 3D printer, which extrudes the building material from its nozzle to build the object from the ground up, adding layer upon layer, sometimes with pauses for the material to dry, until construction is complete. Each of these layers is, in effect, a thinly sliced cross-section of the object.
3D printing is additive, or the exact opposite of subtractive manufacturing which employs cutting out or hollowing out a piece of metal or plastic with a router, lathe or milling machine.
Earlier this year, the international engineering community was staggered by the announcement that researchers from China’s Tsinghua University in Beijing were formulating plans that would raise the concept of advanced manufacturing to a new level by utilizing 3D printing technology to construct a massive 600 foot-tall dam in China’s land-locked Henan province.
According to the University’s research paper, the dam will be 3D-printed and built by robots programmed with artificial intelligence (AI) “more quickly and cheaply than with human labor.”
According to one analysis of the project, “No humans would be directly involved in building the dam…an AI would slice a 3D model of the project into layers, then assign each layer to the unmanned machines sequentially.”
The AI would automatically plan material collection, driving routes, and placement. It can also analyze vibrations to determine build quality. Humans would only mine the fill rocks.
Aside from advantages in speed and cost, the machines could better withstand hazards like low oxygen levels, work around the clock, and researchers think they are less prone to human mistakes.
The dam is slated for completion in 2024 and will deliver almost five billion kilowatt hours of electricity.
Media reports say the start-up of the dam project is reportedly slated to start when the Yangqu hydropower plant on a Tibetan portion of the Yellow River is completed. That project is utilizing scores of AI-driven robots, excavators, bulldozers, and other heavy-duty construction and earth-moving equipment.
In July 2021, the wraps were lifted off another unique additive manufacturing project in China—the completion of work on Shanghai’s Wisdom Bay Bridge, a 30-foot long, 3D printed, concrete bridge that can fold and retract in under a minute.
Printed over three days, the bridge’s nine panels are made from a composite carbonate polyester material, while the retractile element of the bridge is operated via Bluetooth and is equipped with a gravity-sensitive automatic warning system to prevent over-loading.
The Wisdom Bay Bridge, however, isn’t the first of its kind, nor is it the most advanced.
That same month, Dutch fabrication company MX3D, used robotic wire-and-arc additive manufacturing to 3D print a 40-foot metal bridge in Amsterdam.
Addressing a Chronic Problem
Looking homeward, literally, the chronically-fickle U.S. housing market may well glimpse a glimmer of things-to-come via Project Virginia—an on-going, state-sponsored effort to alleviate what is a housing shortage crisis by building 200 3D-printed houses in rural Pulaski, Virginia over the next five years.
Unveiled in April 2022, the project is the largest of its kind in the world.
Overseen by Iowa-based Alquist 3D, each 1,230-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath house will be constructed of reinforced concrete layered one row at a time as the home’s exterior walls are “printed” and erected in days instead of weeks—a two to three week cut in standard construction time and nearly 15 percent in total cost.
A similar example is a recent collaboration between New Story, a San Francisco-based housing nonprofit, and ICON, a construction technology company in Austin, Texas, that designs 3D printers utilized specifically in the construction of homes.
In 2018, ICON was the first company in America to secure a building permit for and build a 3D printed home. The company has a long-term relationship with New Story, having delivered more than two dozen 3D-printed homes and structures across the U.S. and Mexico for the homeless or those in chronic poverty.
By utilizing 3D technology, New Story feels it can build a 600- to 800-square-foot home in just 24 hours for a price tag of $4,000 or less. Prior to that, it normally took the nonprofit eight months to build 100 homes, for around $6,000 each.
In addition to crafting single-family homes for the homeless using 3D printing robotics, ICON is currently working with NASA to develop construction systems for infrastructure and habitats on the moon, and eventually Mars, and delivered what is, to-date, the largest 3D-printed structure in North America—barracks for the Texas State Military Department.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Richard D’Aveni, a business consultant and the Bakala Professor of Strategy at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, stated, “Additive manufacturing is creating durable and safe products for sale to real customers in moderate to large quantities,” listing GE, Boeing, Aurora Flight Sciences, Invisalign, Google, and the Dutch company LUXeXcel as examples of companies “using 3-D printing to ramp up production.”
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the agency is partnering with Lockheed Martin, Cincinnati Tool Steel, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop a capability for printing most of the endo- and exoskeletons of jet fighters, including the body, wings, internal structural panels, embedded wiring and antennas, and soon the central load-bearing structure.
“A resilient and advanced manufacturing base is critical to our mission of defending this nation and protecting our people,” commented U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, Dr. William A. LaPlante.
“In addition to enhancing our domestic supply chains and reducing our dependence on foreign materials, building strong manufacturing partnerships bolsters innovation and competition and generates a skilled and diverse talent pipeline,” he added.
Automation and Robotics
An increasingly key component of advanced manufacturing and its additive component, is the utilization of automation and robotics in the process of production be it a lawn mower, an automobile, or a communications satellite.
In late 2021, the Washington, D.C.-headquartered National Association of Manufacturers’ Manufacturing Leadership Council released a White Paper—“The Next Phase of the Digital Revolution: Manufacturing in 2030.”
According to the paper, “the most potentially significant technology for manufacturing’s future is artificial intelligence.”
AI, “considered by MLC to be a pervasive technology, will increasingly be found in many types of applications and systems involved in manufacturing, from software applications used on the factory floor, to robotic systems used to help assemble products as well as move materials, to systems used in design, simulation, customer interactions, supply chain, and logistics, and many others.”
Artificial Intelligence “is pervasive in its possibility to find, learn, and predict…”
While conventional wisdom says that automation will eventually make jobs increasingly scarce, the paper states that “more likely reality is that industrialized nations will have more job openings than workers to fill them.”
“Add on an aging population with a need for personal assistance, and it becomes more likely than ever that human workers of the future will find themselves with robot colleagues.”
Collaborative robots that work alongside humans “are easier to deploy and program vs. their legacy industrial robotic ancestors, and their lower cost makes them a popular choice for small and medium manufacturers. Their usage is continuing to grow.”
Yearly revenue for collaborative robots, in fact, is expected to reach $11.8 billion by 2030, while investment in artificial intelligence technologies is also expected to see a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) above 20 percent through 2025.
Discrete manufacturing—the production of distinct items that can be easily, touched, counted, or seen—automobiles, furniture, toys, smart phones, and bicycles for example—is among the top-three industry subsets expected to invest most heavily in AI, primarily in quality management and automated preventive maintenance use cases.
According to global business researcher Precedence Research, the global industrial automation market size reached at $196.6 billion in 2021, and is predicted to hit around $412.8 billion in value by 2030, registering growth at a CAGR of 8.59 percent from 2022 to 2030.
The firm sees the “enhanced development of automation technology in various industries with increased production and less human intervention with increased productivity and quality of the process and increased performance,” as well as improved reliability, accuracy and predictable maintenance of the technologies developed in industrial automation.
On the Shop Floor…and Elsewhere
The number of industrial robots as a share of manufacturing workers in the U.S. is below countries like Korea, Singapore, and Germany. However, half of executives surveyed for the Deloitte forecast mentioned earlier expect to increase operational efficiency in 2022 through their investments in robots.
Robots are isolated from human contact, and cobots, or collaborative robots that are programmed for direct human robot interaction within a shared space, or where humans and robots are in close proximity.
Over the past decade, consumer demand and the emergence of smart products have pushed manufacturers to explore radical new ways to create value and keep the customer satisfied.
Nike, for example, is currently testing a robot that is designed to clean and repair old sneakers at its flagship retail store in London.
Dubbed B.I.L.L.—which is short for Bot Initiated Longevity Lab—the system utilizes advanced robotics, water-based cleaning products and recycled polyester patches to refurbished worn footwear.
After loading a shoe into the machine, it creates a 3D model to pinpoint areas on the upper, the sidewalls and the outsole that need cleaning. Customers can also select patches to cover worn areas on the upper.
Once the 45-minute process is complete, a Nike store employee can add new liners and laces made from recycled materials to complete the refurbish.
Chipotle Mexican Grill is piloting advanced technologies to automate its kitchen workflows with operational testing of an artificial intelligence (AI)-based robotic kitchen assistant named Chippy, and an automated kitchen management system.
Chippy is a customized autonomous robot kitchen assistant designed by Pasadena, California-based Miso Robotics that cooks and freshly seasons tortilla chips.
Leveraging AI, Chippy is trained to replicate Chipotle’s exact recipe – using corn masa flour, water and sunflower oil – to prepare the chips, season with salt, and finish with fresh lime juice.
Chipotle has been testing the robot chef at the Chipotle Cultivate Center, the company’s innovation hub in Irvine, California, since March 2022.
Later this year, the company plans to deploy Chippy at its Fountain Valley, CA location before evaluating its performance and assigning Chippy and his fellows nationwide.
National pharmacy chain Walgreen’s operates a fully-automated, fulfillment center in Northlake, Texas, that processes approximately 35,000 prescriptions every day, a figure that is expected to increase to as many as 100,000, according to company management.
Over the next three years, Walgreens plans to operate a total of 22 facilities that will serve more than 8,500 of the company’s nearly 9,000 stores. Two similar facilities are operational near Phoenix, Arizona, and Memphis, Tennessee.
By 2025, as much as half of its prescription volume from stores could be filled at the automated centers, the company says, stressing that licensed pharmacists will continue to fill time-sensitive medications and controlled substances at local stores as the company expands its use of robots.
Training, Education and the Future
The University of Texas at Austin has received a $5,000,000 grant from the U.S. government to fund the Microelectronics Precision Rapid Innovation and Scaling Manufacturing Network Consortium’s efforts to provide accelerated processes for advanced microelectronics research and commercialization, business incubation and acceleration, services to small businesses and supply chain development with new levels of integration and sustainability.
The University of Illinois-led Illinois Defense Manufacturing Consortium received a similar grant to launch a Casting, Forging, and Energy Storage Center of Excellence to introduce new offerings, comprehensive solutions, innovative manufacturing technologies, and state-of-the-art workforce training modules targeting underrepresented populations.
The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) has broken ground on its Advanced Manufacturing and Aerospace Center—an $80 million facility “that will provide cutting edge research and educational space for UTEP’s College of Engineering.”
The four-story, 98,000-square-foot building will house the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation and the Aerospace Center. UTEP expects to train more than 600 graduate and undergraduate students annually in the facility. The Keck Center has expanded its research footprint in recent years with the establishment of the 3D Engineering and Additive Manufacturing Technologies Center near downtown El Paso.
The Aerospace Center has expanded its footprint over the past several years to include the Spacecraft Design and Engineering Facility in south-central El Paso, the Technology Research and Innovation Acceleration Park at the Fabens airport, and the Unmanned Aerial System Flight Test Range in Tornillo, Texas.
The University of Louisville has received $750,000 to launch the Robotics and Additive Manufacturing Pathways to SUCCESS (RAMPS) program aimed at preparing workers for the automated workplaces of the future that involve collaborative human-machine interfaces and 3D printing.
The skills needed by nearly all manufacturers soon will be shaped to some degree by the rapidly accelerating robotics and machine learning revolution, including automation, robotics, additive manufacturing, and artificial intelligence.
RAMPS will allow the university’s Louisville Automation and Robotics Research Institute (LARRI) and other centers to purchase additional advanced equipment, such as a robotic quadruped, and introduce future workers to these devices.
Thanks to a new $65 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, Georgia Tech will oversee the nine projects within the larger Georgia AI Manufacturing (GA-AIM) technology corridor project aimed at transforming the Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Facility (AMPF) into the Artificial Intelligence Manufacturing Pilot Facility (AI-MPF).
The 24,000-square-foot facility will a flagship component of the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute (GTMI) and “serve as a testbed where basic research results are scaled up and translated into implementable technologies, coupled with education, and workforce training.”
“The targeted fields of interest include additive/hybrid manufacturing, composites, digital manufacturing/Industry 4.0, and industrial robotics,” the school said.
The Clemson Composites Center (CCC) team is leading a new study on the development of new ways to 3D print low-cost manufacturing tools to help South Carolina manufacturers save time and money while reducing their environmental impact.
The Center’s research is funded by a $5.16 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office and several industry partners including Ohio-based Honda Development & Manufacturing of America, Ohio State University, and Additive Engineering Solutions LLC.
The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership has said that Boeing will invest $5 million to help expand the global aerospace firm’s advanced manufacturing center there.
The investment, the company said, “will help fund a state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing facility, accelerate workforce development programs, and grow the region’s talent pipeline and technical and manufacturing abilities.”
The St. Louis Partnership will work on the project with economic developer Greater St. Louis, Inc. and a broad, bi-state regional coalition to develop a new Regional Tech Triangle, at which the Boeing facility will serve as the hub.
The Tech Triangle will “bring together and spur innovation within three sectors, advanced manufacturing, biosciences, and geospatial technology, through a ‘hub and spoke’ model that advances inclusive economic growth and resiliency,” Boeing said.
Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development has approved more than $410,000 in grants for eleven Wisconsin school districts to increase the number of students in career and technical education programs.
More than 1,400 high school students are expected to train in advanced manufacturing fields “to prepare for stable careers while they obtain dual enrollment credits, industry-endorsed certificates, and technical endorsements on high school diplomas.”
Nearly $30 million will be dedicated to support workforce development in Florida’s Space Coast region as part of a groundbreaking, multi-agency initiative to support competitive industries in the area.
The Department of Economic Opportunity, the Department of Education, CareerSource Florida, Enterprise Florida and Space Florida have partnered in the initiative to identify high demand industries and match them with workforce education opportunities in the advanced manufacturing field.
Industries expected to benefit from the investment funding include aviation and aerospace, defense, manufacturing, and cybersecurity, and information technology.
Empire State Development’s Western New York Regional Office & the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council have formed a partnership with SUNY-Buffalo to “attract and scale up existing advanced manufacturing strategies through projects that will spark innovation, advance inclusive workforce development, and develop needed infrastructure.”
The Westfield Technical Academy in Westfield, Massachusetts, recently received a $1 million Skills Capital Grant to modernize and update its infrastructure for advanced manufacturing and electrical instructional labs supporting 110 high school students.
The grant will fund the acquisition of new equipment such as Proto TRAK lathes and mills, Haas mini mills, as well as several CAD workstations and the launch of a Center for Teacher Innovation training program.
Missouri’s Ozarks Technical Community College has officially opened the largest building project in its history—a $40 million facility that aims to train the region’s future advanced manufacturing workforce.
The new, 120,000-square-foot Robert W. Plaster Center for Advanced Manufacturing will house seven of the college’s technical training programs, including automation and robotics, drafting and design, advanced manufacturing and information technology, infrastructure, mechatronics, and precision machining.
Officials said that 15,000 square feet in the complex would be reserved for its industry partners, who would be able to train employees, create new equipment processes, conduct research and development, and conduct other company activities.
Lebanon, Missouri-based DT Engineering, an industrial automation firm, will become the first company to use the center later this year.
The Northeast Indiana Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education has three new employer partners for its program.
The addition of Auburn-based Metal Technologies, Warsaw-headquartered Tecomet, and Fort Wayne-based Valbruna Slater Stainless Inc. brings the total number of employer partners in the Federation program to nine.
The three companies join AMT, Fort Wayne Metals, LH Industries, Micropulse, Steel Dynamics, and Zimmer Biomet providing selected students in the two-year program with a paid work experience—with a focus on developing critical professional and technical skills while, at the same time, attending classes on advanced manufacturing technologies.