Viewpoints: Manufacturing's Next Great Leap
For the staff at AMT, an even-numbered year means we will be in Chicago the week after Labor Day as sponsors of the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS). But for most everyone else in Washington, DC, an even-numbered year means Election Year,with all the accompanying political rhetoric.
Among the talking points we keep hearing is the "fact" that US manufacturing is dying, with complaints that American jobs are being shipped overseas, and predictions that they are never coming back.
What is really happening? We are in a global economy, we are competing in that global economy, manufacturing technology is an essential global industry, and it must be served by global players.
Thus, manufacturing in the US is not dying—it is changing. The fact is, US value-added manufacturing output is at an all-time high—at more than $2 trillion annually, the US is the global manufacturing leader and US output is double that of number two China. While manufacturing employment has declined in the US during the past five years, it has fallen in most other industrialized nations as well—including China.
Declining employment and rising output are not incompatible; they are the positive result of using advanced, high-tech manufacturing technology solutions to conquer the 21st Century's increasingly demanding manufacturing challenges.
Thanks to innovative engineering and the dogged pursuit of operational efficiency, startling advances in the speed, accuracy, and output of these computer-controlled machines have yielded steady increases in productivity. But we are nearing a plateau, and we soon will reach it unless we develop another revolutionary or "disruptive" technology like CNC that produces a significant process change.
Fortunately, we are well-positioned to see productivity improvements not experienced since CNC manufacturing gained traction in the 1970s.
Because of efforts which began several years ago, the goal of making predictive manufacturing a reality is moving forward, and approaching a breakthrough. Recently, manufacturing technology providers and users working with AMT, the University of California/Berkeley, and Georgia Tech produced an open communication standard for manufacturing equipment interoperability called MTConnect. If our industry's leaders empower their engineers to innovate around it, the resulting integrated manufacturing environment will produce profound results.
The threshold we stand upon today was reached via a journey that began nearly four years ago with the launch of the Smart Machine Platform Initiative (SMPI), an industry/government/academic program to develop technologies that enable predictive manufacturing—equipment that analyzes and optimizes instructions prior to execution to make the first part correct without unscheduled delays.
But, as we all know, making the first part correct is only a portion of the challenge. Reaching the productivity levels that will be needed in the future requires reducing machine downtime and improving utilization.
To accomplish that objective, we first must knock down an industry barrier: we still work in "manufacturing islands" and preclude connectivity between machines from different manufacturers. This situation prevents users from fully optimizing the factory floor.
MTConnect is aimed at this problem. It's a middleware using .XML computer language to provide connectivity and interoperability between all types of machines on the factory floor, as well as the computer platforms designed to optimize operations. This technology includes the use of the Internet to connect remote locations.
This is important, because our determination to squeeze more productivity out of each machine, or "island" of machines, is bumping up against the law of diminishing returns. But with MTConnect, we will be able to optimize entire manufacturing operations and place dramatic productivity improvements within reach.
How much? That depends on the commitment of our industry's leaders and the ingenuity of our manufacturing engineers. But consider this: one of the world's major manufacturers calculates that improving utilization by 17% increases productivity by 44.5%.
Next month, at IMTS, the first public demonstration of MTConnect will occur in the Emerging Technology Center, where you can stop by, "pull" data off select machines scattered throughout the exhibition hall, and see the potential opportunity that lies before us in real time. After IMTS, we will continue to shepherd the standard to adoption, and then AMT will step aside and let manufacturers create the products that will achieve the increased productivity that 21st Century manufacturing demands.
MTConnect has the potential to facilitate the next great leap in manufacturing. It is something that industry has been asking for, and is now within our reach. Whether we get there or not is up to you.
This article was first published in the August 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.