May 17th 2017

Taking Manufacturing to the Future

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Manufacturing, says the old conventional wisdom, is supposed to be “over.” To many people, the very word has had a bittersweet flavor, calling up images of rusting, padlocked factories. But as often happens, the conventional wisdom is behind the times.

The Factory of the Future is gearing up for full production, and the freshly painted — or perhaps, digitized — sign by the gates declares Now Hiring!

Behind those factory gates, transformation is being driven by a convergence of technologies — information technology (IT), operational technology (OT) and the Internet of Things (IoT), and others.

The Factory of the Future

As Larry Korak reports at Industry Week (part one), the new age of industrial production goes by various names: the Factory of the Future, Smart Manufacturing, Industry 4.0 and the Digital Enterprise, among others.

Factory of the Future (Northrop Grumman Careers)

Some technologies driving this revolution, such as computer-assisted design (CAD) and computer-assisted manufacturing (CAM), have been around for a while. Others, notably cloud computing and mobile, are more recent. Just about to take off are the Internet of Things and additive manufacturing for production.

The bottom line of these technologies? For the enterprise, more than four out of five early adopters (82 percent) report achieving increased efficiency. Nearly half have also seen fewer product defects (49 percent) and greater customer satisfaction (45 percent).

For communities, the Factory of the Future is creating new jobs: 900,000 new U.S. jobs since February of 2010.

Automated Agility

Continuing his discussion at Industry Week (part two), Korak outlines some key requirements for the Factory of the Future. The old days of undifferentiated mass production are truly over. Henry Ford’s then-revolutionary Model T was reputedly available in “any color you want, so long as it is black.” But agility, responsiveness and differentiation are the strategic keys to the new manufacturing.

Workers on first moving assembly line (Wikimedia Commons)

The strategy encompasses training, processes, tools and facilities. Rapid prototyping, increased additive manufacturing, highly integrated and automated assembly lines, more advanced modeling and sim tools, executing design with manufacturing so they are almost simultaneous — these are just some of the ways the shop floor of today is being transformed. These changes are in turn being powered by social media, big data analytics, the IoT and the power of collaboration, both between the enterprise and its customers and on the shop floor itself.

Even automation is taking on a new shape. The old science-fiction robots were going to take our jobs (if they didn’t enslave us). But the more we learn about artificial intelligence (AI), the more we are discovering that it is a tool, amplifying the power of the mind the way power tools amplify the power of the hand.

Everything Old Is New Again

The old factory jobs, like the products that traditional factory workers built, emphasized the standardized and routine. But the age of agility and differentiation is transforming factory work as well as the factory itself and its products. Engineers and production workers are putting heads and hands together to understand the job and the product from all angles.

“Accelerated change and heightened complexity means we must continuously innovate,” says Todd Szallay,

Director, Advanced Manufacturing and Technology, at Northrop Grumman. “The Factory of the Future is a digital factory where the virtual and physical world are fully integrated across not just the manufacturing process but the entire life of a product. Building stuff has never been more high-tech.”

And as a result, new craft skills are taking form in the Factory of the Future, for tasks such as creating a 3D model of a product, then transforming it into the real, physical thing. Apprenticeships will play a growing role, but many of these skills cannot be taught in a classroom; they can only be mastered on the factory floor itself.

Northrop Grumman’s F-35 Integrated Assembly Line

From the days of biplanes a century ago, aviation and aerospace have always been at the cutting edge of manufacturing technology. No other product line has such demanding specifications. The performance demands of a new generation of aircraft have already brought about a transformation of the assembly line, exemplified by Northrop Grumman’s Integrated Assembly Line (IAL) in Palmdale, California.

As Austin Weber writes at Assembly magazine, the IAL earned the trade journal’s 2013 Assembly Plant of the Year award. According to Northrop Grumman’s Brian Chappel, “the IAL design uses a system-engineering approach to integrate tooling and structure transport, system automation, automated drilling cells, and tooling mechanization coordinated across multiple build centers.”

The end result will not only halve the time needed to assemble high performance airframes; it will transform the way we think about manufacturing.

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