Skip to content

The Future of Manufacturing – Big or Small?

Bruce Morey
By Bruce Morey Senior Technical Editor, SME Media

Taking stock of a surprising and challenging 2016, a number of trends may point to a future where manufacturing output increases while continuing to decentralize. This may give hope to a surprising future of a distributed economy that begins to erode the monolithic big manufacturing we have taken for granted.

One of the major themes of the surprising political campaigns of 2016 was the loss of manufacturing employment in North America in recent decades. That fact alone is undeniable, according to statistics from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The cause of this decline apparently is, however, open to rancorous debate. While many manufacturing professionals point to operational efficiency and automation, enabled by cheap, powerful computing, others look to the transfer of factories and jobs to low-wage countries.

Many professionals I have talked to in the past year will agree it is a combination of both, though there is heated debate about how much each has contributed to the decline. Some say it is mostly low-wage job transfers, others say automation dominates. If the BLS statistics are to be believed, the US is producing just as much as it ever has with fewer workers – that means efficiency has a large part in reduced employment. It probably depends on the industry or even the company. Either way, it does not look good for increasing employment in manufacturing, even if more factory capacity is re-shored. It seems that automation and efficiencies will continue to pencil out over labor as computing gets cheaper and clever engineers continue to exploit that fact.

But this view of automation and employment may be all wrong, perhaps in the long run.

How can this be? A number of technical and societal trends point to a more distributed manufacturing base, one of many small owners producing parts in low-volumes distributed throughout the country.

Let me explain how this might happen.

Big Manufacturing, Distributed Manufacturing

When we think of manufacturing today, we think of huge factories pumping out 100,000’s of products, from automobiles to dishwashers. Parts suppliers do the same for the components that go into them, from gears and pistons to electric motors. Even commercial aerospace is ramping up into producing airplanes on a scale not seen since World War II.

Even in these seeming monolithic factories, however, transformation has been occurring for decades. Supply chains are becoming much more complex and distributed. Yes globally to low-wage countries, but even locally within countries and regions. Airbus and Boeing piece together airplanes from suppliers around the world, as does the automotive industry.

Employment compared to indexed manufacturing output in years 1988 to 2015. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics and Federal Reserve Economic Data.)

Key Enablers Today

Much of this has been enabled by factory and management systems, such as Manufacturing Execution Systems and Product Lifecycle Management technology. Efficient and reliable transportation infrastructures for moving parts and products around the globe is another enabler. Contract law and dependable trade agreements are vital as well.

But, let’s stick with the technical. For example, product designs are moved at the speed of light as CAD files with attached manufacturing instructions and quality information, known as PMI. While there is still a long way to go to ensure PMI is complete and end-users know how to use it, these files are becoming ever more standardized and accessible. Many parts catalogs now offer a CAD model for free download. My own high school aged son was doing this in his robotics club. His friends pieced together a robot design using these parts with minimal instruction using a CAD software program they learned in a few weekends. This is only going to get easier – call it design communication automation.

As the futurist Jeremy Rifkin wrote in his recent book on this very subject (with the less-than-catchy title The Zero Marginal Cost Society), the growth of the internet has created a new information eco-system that anyone, even small producers, can benefit from.

There remains a catch, the high cost of manufacturing equipment. If a small manufacturer wants to get into the game, how could they do so? A machining center or other fabricating equipment is not cheap and typically requires considerable expertise to program. Injection molding or casting requires expensive molds and so on. Automotive stamping presses are enormous and expensive.

Fabrication and Additive Manufacturing for the Future

That is where the excitement about the new additive manufacturing technologies enters the picture. I will admit this narrative gets speculative at this point, but let me play it out before you decide to stop reading. Some industry professionals are looking to the advantages of additive manufacturing, as defined by such devices as selective laser melting, SLM, selective laser sintering, SLS, and other devices that produce products bit by bit or layer by layer. Professional organizations like SME and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers continue to fund workshops and symposia on both technology and the employment of these devices. ASME has stated through its manufacturing subcommittee that “Low-volume manufacturing, in the quantities of 1,000-10,000 of innovative and specialized products at economical pricing is needed in nearly every industry, from medical devices to defense to consumer products.”

In a future vision, any small manufacturer could either build their own product for sale, or bid on building a part for a larger product like an automobile. They could easily download not only the bid information, but the CAD files and materials specifications as well. Additive manufacturing devices are critical to this, because a small manufacturer would not be locked into a narrow range of potential products or parts with a more constrictive manufacturing device. Additive manufacturing offers the promise of building any shape from the same machine, as economically for small volumes as large.

Automating Support Functions

But let us not forget that cheap, intelligent automation can help other support functions as well. It is important to not only make the part or device, it must be inspected, packed, shipped, and verified. For example, customers will need to know that the parts created by a small supplier meets the quality and material specifications required.

Local Motors is pioneering an automobile made from a car frame printed from plastic materials, upending the notion of sheet metal stampings in large factories.

The good news here is that automation is increasing the performance of metrology equipment as well. That PMI data I mentioned earlier contains GD&T explaining the quality measures the part must meet as compared to its CAD. Metrology software fitted for a particular device uses that GD&T to automatically create a parts inspection program. The advent of scanning devices, like laser scanners that produce measured point clouds, is making that task even easier as well as reducing cost. The inspection data would then be uploaded to the customer along with the part, keyed to a bar code that identifies each individual part.

So, automation would enable a future small manufacturer not only the means of making parts, but cost effective ancillary operations like inspecting them and proving they meet the quality standards of the customer. The internet eco-system means easier transfer of data, reducing transaction costs to almost nothing no matter how distributed the system becomes.

Obstacles and Opportunities

There are obstacles to this utopian vision, of course. One of the key enablers in this vision is analytical design software created for the unique issues of additive manufacturing. Creating a part by welding or melting it up bit by bit creates distortions, residual stresses and potential defects. These are quite different than the potential defects from cutting tools or casting. A number of firms are offering new analytical software to address this. Even a new file format has appeared, the AMF, for digital representation of parts to be made in AM. All of the players in CAD, big and small, are working towards new additive manufacturing software tools. The degree to which these are automated, so that operators without advanced degrees in mathematics and analytical mechanics can get decent results, is an open question. It is where the CAE industry is headed, but how soon will it get there?

Another key point that a researcher named Jan Vandenbrande from the Defense Science Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, pointed out at the 2016 SAE World Congress is the staggering complexity of the product that could be produced through additive manufacturing. It is one thing to recreate a design in additive manufacturing for, say, a gear that is already made on a CNC hobbing machine, such as a solid piece with gear faces cut out of it. It is another to exploit additive manufacturing to create a gear design made with a lattice structure to reduce weight while maintaining strength. The issue with that, as Vandenbrande pointed out in his talk at SAE, is that the design file can be many magnitudes larger and not adequately capture a structure for even a physically small part.

DARPA hopes to remedy this through its Transformative Design, or TRADES, development program, but for the moment we have to assume that incomplete understanding of additive manufacturing is an obstacle at present.

Overcoming these obstacles, I think, are doable over time. We will have to see how this vision of a distributed, perhaps egalitarian, future world of manufacturing plays out.

Personally, I hope it does.

  • View All Articles
  • Connect With Us

Related Articles

Always Stay Informed

Receive the latest manufacturing news and technical information by subscribing to our monthly and quarterly magazines, weekly and monthly eNewsletters, and podcast channel.