Visions of manufacturing automation 25 years from now
Predicting the future of technology is risky and can be an unforgiving exercise. Just consider those forward-looking forecasts of the 1950s and ’60s about flying cars becoming commonplace by around year 2000. Still, it’s interesting and fun to contemplate tomorrow on occasion. This forward glimpse is similar to historic reviews of the past taken by Control Engineering during its recent 60th anniversary year.
Manufacturing automation 20-25 years into the future has to be separated into at least two major sectors: heavy industries and so-called light manufacturing of cleaner, serially produced commercial and consumer products.
Heavy industries such as steel production, shipbuilding, mining, and other capital-goods manufacturing will not have largely changed by 2034-39 because of the inherently rough or dirtier processes involved. However, great strides in automation, environmentally cleaner production plants, and energy efficiency in manufacturing will have been implemented. These industries will consist of few but large facilities.
In the world of light manufacturing, product development will be completely under computer control—from the design concept stage to commercial products and through to end-of-life disposal. Manufacturing will be devoid of the paper trail. More and smaller manufacturing facilities will be the norm since many products will not be mass produced. Rather, manufacturing hubs will specialize in customized, short-run products and be able to respond to specific orders or customer demands.
Much greater manufacturing flexibility will prevail, enabled by the latest multi-layer automation control systems, production planning tools, and software. Contactless data collection from sensors throughout the facility will provide essentially real-time process feedback to the factory control system. Almost one-of-a-kind production will be possible, which will play into the trend of no stocked parts and no costly material inventories—with attendant reduction in costs and real estate. Some of these manufacturing threads exist today, but they will be routinely applied in the next 20-25 years.
Readily available process information will also be used for product quality assessment, preventive maintenance of plant equipment, and continuous calculation of energy consumption—besides serving as input to control manufacturing lines. Energy efficiency will be a metric integral to manufacturing, as reflected in factory operations as well as in products manufactured.
Simulation software, advanced robotics
Computerized product design and development will be integrated with simulation software as never before. Simulation techniques will have matured from years of experience with numerous reference models and feedback from real-life applications.
This sort of "calibration" will advance simulation programs to a point where designers have complete trust in the software’s recommendations. User interaction with simulation software will also have been simplified. Of course, practical engineering experience will continue to be an asset when using simulation tools.
Virtual product design will reach reality. The need for formal testing of products will be essentially eliminated—except for special cases involving human safety. Cost and time of bringing products to market should be substantially reduced.
Robot technology will also have made great strides. Two parallel paths are foreseen: multiple robots working together to a much greater extent than today, and robots working alongside people. The first scenario will require more advanced controls and software algorithms to handle the more complex and higher dynamic motions necessary for several robots to safely interact at the same time on a production line. Faster production will be the main benefit.
The second scenario will have people and robots sharing complementary tasks in manufacturing processes. Different, specialized control systems and software will be key to ensure safety as well as efficient operation of robots in the proximity of people. Artificial intelligence methods will be used to a greater extent to assist in this type of work sharing where robots will need to take on some human-like behavior.
Plant systems and equipment will have reached unprecedented levels of energy efficiency by 2034-39, driven by mandatory minimum energy performance standards (MEPS). Electric motors, pumps, fans, compressors, gearboxes, and process heating/cooling systems will be among equipment affected by regulations. Energy requirements of motor-driven systems were recognized early on as being the largest single segment of electric power generated worldwide, particularly in manufacturing industries.
MEPS initiatives started with electric motors around the year 1997 due to their huge installed base and recognized testing standards. This was led by the U.S. (significant regulation already in place there), with other industrial countries following suit over time. By the early 2020s mandatory MEPS for most types of electric motors will have spread worldwide. However, the substantially more difficult task to expand MEPS to the various motor-connected loads noted above will take more time to implement, but should also be in place in 20-25 years. Moreover, MEPS will apply more widely to equipment manufactured for commercial use as well as to appliances and devices for consumer use.
Variable-speed drives (VSDs) will find greater use in manufacturing and elsewhere, with 50% or more of electric motors entering the market by 2039 running under speed/torque control. Major advances in VSDs are also expected from new power-switching device developments. Silicon carbide (SiC) and gallium nitride (GaN) will be candidate technologies. These semiconductors will offer superior switching speeds and higher temperature operation compared to today’s best available silicon IGBTs (insulated-gate bipolar transistors).
Matured new technologies
Some totally new manufacturing methods might be online in 20 years; however, more mature new technologies of today will likely be the big players. Additive layer manufacturing (ALM), aka 3D printing, is at the top of the list. ALM will be widely applied by 2034-39 in factory hubs but in greater numbers in small businesses and even in individual homes.
Compactness of the equipment places ALM in the larger area of desktop manufacturing. One new development for ALM will be standardized production processes where actual working components will be produced rather than prototype parts. Also, the variety of materials that can be processed will greatly expand to include prime engineering materials. As it will be a widely dispersed technology, ALM will carry the burden of ensuring product consistency, reliability, production security, and IP protection.
An aside is in order here for a personal comment about today’s too-well accepted terminology of "3D printing" to describe ALM. The term may be catchy, but it trivializes the novel manufacturing process involved and implies a routine, toy-like environment. Earlier it was called rapid prototyping, which made sense when it was largely intended for that purpose. Additive layer manufacturing seems like a better name than 3D printing—until something still better comes along.
Nano-scale manufacturing, desktop CNC
Another technology, nano-scale manufacturing, will come into its own by the 2034-39 time period. Production of advanced computer chips will be one application of the technology. Conventional microchip processes are reaching their capability limits as ever more switches and computing functions are placed on a silicon chip.
Intensive research is ongoing to take nano-scale manufacturing to the molecular level for manufacturing various extremely small electronic circuits and mechanical devices. It portends to open wider manufacturing specialties for this technology.
Meanwhile, continued miniaturization of servo motors, electric drives, and motion controllers will produce a niche market for the manufacture of small, precise industrial parts literally in the space of a desktop. This "desktop CNC" approach exists today but has not been exploited to its full potential. Its competitive edge relative to ALM will be more precise dimensional tolerances and finer surface finishes of manufactured parts.
Some industries will not fit into the tabletop manufacturing environment. Automotive and aerospace are two such special manufacturing subsets.
Automotive production will benefit from ALM for its numerous smaller parts, but larger components in the chassis, engine, and drivetrain will be made and assembled in serial production lines that resemble what we see today. However, those lines will be much more automated, robot assisted, and streamlined in many ways.
Aerospace manufacturing will be a special sector within high-tech manufacturing—beyond the advanced state-of the-art we see today. Even larger, nonmetallic structures will be prevalent, requiring appropriate production processes. For example, microwave ovens of gigantic size will be used to cure large composite material aerospace components. Special controls will be able to selectively heat-cure different parts of the structure and manage the diverse processing of these complex parts.
People issues, new economics
Unfortunately, from a socio-economic view, fewer people will populate factories of the future. From an automation or efficiency perspective, it will be a positive result.
Fewer engineers, technicians, and support personnel will be needed as production machines and industrial robots will be fully automated. Even normal maintenance procedures as we know them today will be incorporated into future manufacturing control systems. As a result, factory personnel with troubleshooting and system-level knowledge rather than conventional machine maintenance know-how will be needed.
Appropriate education and training will be required for these new-era manufacturing positions. Training methods along the lines of the European industrial apprentice programs will become accepted in other parts of the world by the 2034-39 time frame. However, these training programs will focus on manufacturing system management and equipment troubleshooting—not on traditional machine operator know-how. A cadre of well qualified technicians will be in place.
Factory management will also have a different face. Possibly one manager in a facility could be tasked with supervising all production functions with the aid of sophisticated IT software and computerized tools. Comprehensive monitoring of plant metrics will be filtered and prioritized for significance to prevent overwhelming the manager with data. Specialists of all levels will be on call to respond quickly with assistance as needed.
Total cost of ownership
Manufacturing planning and cost management will have reached a more enlightened level. Lifecycle costing and total cost of ownership will be widely applied as the real measure of project costs. Economic assessment of manufacturing products or implementing new/updated factory systems will be based on such methods.
The world of manufacturing 20-25 years ahead will be substantially different from that of today. Will it be a better world?—maybe. Will it be a more efficient world?—most likely. However, that future world will surely be an interesting one for those of us fortunate to be around to witness it.
– Frank J. Bartos, PE, is a Control Engineering contributing content specialist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Manufacturing automation 20-25 years into the future will be devoid of a paper trail.
- Great strides in automation, environmentally cleaner production plants, and energy efficiency in manufacturing will have been implemented.
- Simulation techniques will have matured from years of experience with numerous reference models and feedback from real-life applications.
- Lifecycle costing and total cost of ownership will be the real measure of project costs.
- Robotics, 3D printing, and artificial intelligence will be widely used.
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For other perspectives on where automation has been and is going, see the linked articles below.