February 27, 2018

Navigating New Frontiers in Manufacturing

by Joe Erb

Over the past few years, we’ve been monitoring and writing about how automation has affected the fenestration industry. High-speed lines for IG automation have transformed the way we can think about producing high volumes of finished products. Semi-automated lines, meanwhile, have helped manufacturers gain new efficiencies for a more modest investment.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how manufacturers outside the fenestration industry are looking forward and approaching new technologies. Because while we’ve made significant progress, other industries have gone even further. We’ve talked about Industry 4.0 on this blog before—and big things are starting to happen.

Let’s take a look at a few of them:

The continuously evolving workforce.
Here’s some striking research to consider—according to McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, nearly two-thirds of global manufacturing jobs have the potential to be automated. Not tomorrow; today.

More from McKinsey:

To understand the scope of possible automation in the manufacturing sector as a whole, we conducted a study of manufacturing work in 46 countries in both the developed and developing worlds, covering about 80 percent of the global workforce. Our data and analysis show that as of 2015, 478 billion of the 749 billion working hours (64 percent) spent on manufacturing-related activities globally were automatable with currently demonstrated technology. These 478 billion working hours represent the labor equivalent of 236 million out of 372 million full-time employees—$2.7 trillion out of $5.1 trillion of labor—that could be eliminated or repurposed, assuming that demonstrated technologies are adapted for use in individual cases and then adopted.

The implication here is  that we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible with automation, and there are untold ways in which this transformation will transform our workforce. But not all labor is equal when it comes to automation. The report suggests that “low-skill labor/low product complexity” items are far more readily automatable (69%-82%), where “high-skill labor/ high product complexity” goods are less so (43%-53%).

This all tracks with what we’ve seen in the fenestration industry over the past several years, of course. Automation has driven us and enabled us to look differently at our workforces, helping us overcome some shortages in labor while investing in our best people. Meanwhile, those skills that can’t be automated will become all the more valuable.

Who needs a heating bill?
The more factory floors become automated, the less need we’ll have for some things that were once deemed indispensable. Take it from a recent article in Forbes, which detailed our potential future of automation:

Your factory needs heat and lights, right? What if that weren’t true? It’s possible that fully automated factories will operate on pure touch sensors. If the automation system is so sophisticated that no human involvement is necessary, why turn on the lights? Take the latest smartphone technology, which can recognize your face even if you look at it in the dark. Maybe your machines can operate in different wavelengths of light than those that the human eye is suited. This can save you money and help the environment by saving energy. The same theory applies to heat. While people may need a comfortable 72 degrees, we don’t have to be held to that standard in an environment made purely for machines.

The implications of additive manufacturing.
We’ve been keeping our eyes on what additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, can do for the fenestration industry for a little while now. As my colleague Ric Jackson noted for DWM Magazine almost three years ago, “While 3-D printing capabilities such as this are increasing, the cost seems to be decreasing. In fact, 3-D printing technology is moving from the design bench to the manufacturing floor in some applications as a cost-effective alternative.”

In 2018, some of the most practical applications for additive manufacturing have become clearer. Prototyping remains the dominant function, as noted in a long investigation from Engineering.com. But for smaller specialty parts with complex geometries, additive manufacturing is beginning to find its footing in true end-use applications.
Questions or comments? Contact me directly at joe.erb@Quanex.com.

For more information about Quanex visit www.quanex.com
Posted: February 27, 2018 by Joe Erb Filed under: automation, manufacturing, Workforce