Manufacturing is a key economic sector, driving the innovations that have helped transform all of our lives, but if they are to become a reality, those innovations require advances in technology.
The making of goods is important economically. Not only does manufacturing provide good jobs, with higher overall compensation relative to other sectors of the economy, but it also helps foster the types of innovations that lead to increases in standards of living. To succeed, however, manufacturers need technologies that enable them to develop products as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Manufacturing is continuously evolving and technological changes help drive that process of evolution. Take the example of auto making. The mass production techniques that made cars more affordable during the early part of the 20th century utterly transformed transport, how people lived, and even where they lived. Auto making relied on assembly lines staffed by thousands of workers. The implications of mass car production remain with us, as reflected in the rise of suburbia and commuting, but in the industry many of the same tasks traditionally done by auto workers are now done by robots. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that robots can do everything, and jobs that require decision-making and creativity continue to require significant human input. Nonetheless, where a robot can do a job, it tends to do that job with great precision and speed, resulting in productivity increases and quicker delivery times of finished goods to the marketplace. Automation and the increasing use of IT also allows manufacturers to significantly cut down on waste, to the benefit of us all, in environmental terms.
Textiles is another industry that has benefited from advances in technologies. If you look at a company such as Tommie Copper, you will see a good example of how technology is put to use in producing innovative textiles that bring real benefits to wearers. The copper wear manufactured by Tommie Copper uses advances in weaving and the infusion of copper and zinc into materials to produce high quality athletic and performance garments that eliminate odors, move moisture away from the skin and provide protection against the sun’s harmful rays. If we consider the future of textiles, innovation will center to an extent on the development of smart textiles and the seamless incorporation of digital components into the material. Possibilities opening up from the use of smart textiles range from the regulation of body temperature and the control of muscle vibration to protection against the environment and feedback on athletic performance.
If we look at which technologies will shape manufacturing generally in the years ahead, the power of the Internet cannot be underestimated. Just as the Internet has transformed daily life, from how we communicate with each other to how we shop for goods and services, it has also been affecting industry. The connected factory has become an increasing reality, based on the notion of harnessing the Internet to collect, process and analyze data. Using the concept of the Internet of Things, factories can use devices to collate data that, following analysis, can be used to improve productivity and efficiency. Manufacturers are also leveraging the Internet of Things to produce a next generation of products with capabilities far beyond what were previously thought possible. For example, car manufacturers are working on vehicles that are fully connected, generating data for a broad range of uses, from fuel efficiency to predictive maintenance.
Another transformative technology that is still in its infancy is 3D printing. The production of solid products from digital designs, 3D printing has gone from being a way of producing prototypes quickly to transforming the face of manufacturing itself. The potential of 3D printing lies in one sense in its ability to produce low volume, specialized parts that are components of larger, finished products. An alternative use for 3D printing is the development of tools used in the molding, casting and forming of products. Combined with cloud technology, 3D printing is facilitating decentralized production, using a network of facilities linked by information technology. This holds out the possibility of a revitalized cottage-industry model, with manufacturing taking place in individual homes, at a time when new and more efficient ways of working outside of the centralized workplace are coming to the fore.
Technologies help drive innovation and the development of groundbreaking products from the concept stage to their delivery to customers. Without developments in manufacturing technology, manufactures would not have the means to successfully develop those products that have helped transform how we live.