By Dave Brambert
We humans in business are always reaching to do more: more challenging, bigger projects, longer lasting significance. The other side of our reaching, to make things easier, gives us ways to make things faster with less human effort, automating processes, and offloading dull, dirty, and dangerous work (we’re looking at you, robots).
Some of these trends are due to growing project scope, others are due to the incursion of technology into our lives. Why should manufacturing be any different? It isn’t. Therefore, here are five trends that will develop as we approach 2028:
Trend 1: Multiregional, multinational projects. The public projects (airports, bridges, dams) are becoming so large and complex that it takes several vendors to meet the demands. The demands will likely be so great that the vendors will be from different countries. If you thought Denver or Chicago were made for long-distance walkers, try on the new airport in Istanbul. Or, how long would it take to explore the more than 6 million square feet of terminal buildings at London’s Heathrow Airport? How long to build? How many beams? How much architectural metal finish? How many metal window and door frames?
Trend 2: Complexity is a team sport. The Great American Story of Success was often built on one person’s discovery or development. Robert Fulton with the steamboat, Octave Chanute’s unpowered flight testing that was a precursor to other examples, the Wright brothers. Whereas the first powered flight came from two guys with a bike shop, the flight to the moon, NASA is quick to point out, came from the work of 400,000 people. As our goals rose, complexity multiplied. But isn’t that the way with our projects now? I have a relative who works for an engineering company that does finishing of important aerospace parts, and the necessary complexity means a specialized company is the right place to accomplish this task. The astonishing thing is, they are working on projects that were begun by a friend’s company that makes 3D printed parts and mega-sized machined products that are often the same parts processed bv my relative’s company. The bonds of teams, it seems, will ignore company walls.
Trend 3: Artificial Intelligence. Popular culture is a funny thing. In the ‘50s, preying on our fear of things we didn’t understand, Hollywood made countless movies about things that terrorized us after being exposed to radiation; “Them,” the story of thirty-foot-high ants, was a definitive example. And so, science fiction movies about artificial intelligence usually go something like This: people use artificial intelligence for accuracy or some other criterion, and then the AI advances and gains consciousness, and all hell breaks loose. The truth is, we have the best, most intelligent computers in the “wetware” between our ears. Artificial intelligence is just that, an effort at mimicking the processes of human thought, which is indeed powerful, just not all-powerful. You and I are living proof of that. You can already see the first entry in artificial intelligence by visiting MC Machinery, some of whose machines contain technology Mitsubishi developed for autonomously-driven cars. More will follow, to be sure. Don’t worry, your laser won’t take over your business. Artificial intelligence is in its infancy, and its job is to learn and perform, not to amass and destroy!
Trend 4: Great things take a while to do and take lots of resources too. Remember when concrete was a little difficult to get while China built its enormous dam a few years back? That took a long time. Various estimates of how long it took to built the pyramids lead me to think it was an average of about 25 years for each pyramid, of which there are 118 in Egypt alone. Put together, that’s about 3,000 project-years’ worth of work. There is no question, given the lifespans in those days, that pyramid building was a multigenerational activity, and probably a multinational one. Take a project with great size and complexity, say, a large telescope, and you may be surprised to note that the company charged with making the base of the telescope had to build a new building to accommodate such a large yet delicate structure with such high demands in accuracy and precision. This is in fact already a multigenerational project but the results will be groundbreaking/skybreaking.
Trend 5: New innovations in machine technology. If you look at any kind of highly automated machine tool, there is usually some cage around it, making sure that we brilliant wetware-containing beings don’t do something stupid and walk into a moving metal part (which we are also prone to do, alongside our brilliance). We have worked so long on computer interfaces (MAP/TOP, APIs, Named Pipes, etc.) and yet, comparatively, precious little on physical interfaces. For example, wouldn’t it be great if the physical interface of a robot, or an autonomous mobile robot, or even a charging platform, had the same physical interfaces in its family/brands of products? One thing we will certainly see is a Tesla-like (the scientist, not the car) use of remote charging. We are seeing the birth of Wi-Fi being used as a charging medium not in physical touch with the thing being charged.
It would be fun to wake up five years in the future to see all these things, but truthfully progress can seem slow as we live and move toward that time, especially when the potential payoff is great. We’ll have to agree with the old saying, “the days are long and the years are short” and know that we will be in a changed industry—in a few short years.