UpFront: Choices and Challenges
By Brian J. Hogan
These really are very good times for manufacturing. Give some thought to manufacturing technology, and it's clear that no industry in any of the great industrial nations is operating anywhere near the maximum attainable level of productivity. And on the "soft" side of manufacturing, lean tools are only beginning to be applied in the plant and front office. As manufacturing engineers and managers improve their understanding of lean, there will be a significant gain in productivity in every area.
Furthermore, from this chair it seems as though most companies out there are making some money.You can certainly insist that margins are too low, and that we've not yet seen a complete rebound from the blows everyone absorbed during the recession. But things are better, and a great many companies are feeling healthy.
There's now a tremendous pool of technical innovation available for manufacturing personnel to utilize. On the technical side, the real issue is: What does my business truly need to move forward?
The new machine tools coming out are simply excellent. Today's so-called commodity machine tool has capabilities that would have been considered high-end 15 years ago, and the latest high-end, high-tech equipment is really very impressive. Some grinding machine builders can now adjust their machines in increments of nanometers, and affordable automation has made true unmanned operation an option for large and small shops. Robots continue to decline in price, and they're adding capabilities; consider the attempts to use robots equipped with milling heads as metalcutting machine tools. Manufacturing software has never been more capable, or easier to use, than it is these days, and the vigorous competition among software houses makes it clear that software will only get better.
Link all of this technology up via the communications technologies now available, including the Internet, and the pieces are in place for something quite wonderful to emerge.
It's difficult to think of any manufacturing field that isn't experiencing technology-driven change. And the changes all push us toward more capability, more flexibility, more power, lower costs. Also, it's clear that one of the major considerations in deciding to purchase new equipment these days must be the danger of technical obsolescence. Machines purchased seven or ten years ago may be running quite well, but are they outdated? In a time of technical innovation, new equipment can be so productive it compels manufacturing operations to pay attention. Physical obsolescence and technical obsolescence are very different drivers, but these days, the second may be the more important factor.
I'm sure you've heard the Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." Well, for better or worse, we do.
This article was first published in the October 2006 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.