As automated, robotic assembly lines have become more and more embedded in large-scale vehicle manufacturing, the practice of lights-out manufacturing has become more widespread. It refers to autonomously operating factories that don’t need human interventions and, hence, don’t require lighting. Without robots, it would take up to 500 operatives to staff a 40,000 square foot warehouse, whereas only five technicians are required to service the robots as they work. Machines are becoming more interconnected and self-learning at a phenomenal rate, so if humans are to remain a key part of the component manufacture process, the future challenge is to balance people and technology for operational efficiency.
Let’s take a brief look at other functional areas where technological innovations are impacting strongly on the component manufacturing industry.
The key innovation in R&D is how technology platforms are revolutionising the use of the talent latent in R&D teams, through Artificial Intelligence – advances in materials science mean that AR or VR headsets could be an integral part of the drafting board used in the future for schematics. Companies like Intel, using their ‘tick-tock’ model, are also interconnecting R&D with certain business areas to make it a more integral part of the overall business model: in their case, microarchitecture processes and manufacturing technology.
Machining production and assembly
The trend here is towards the use of modular equipment and custom-machining using 3D printers. These permit components manufacturers to deal with the increasing demand for variety and customisation.
Tech companies like the aforementioned Intel, AMD, Samsung, and Apple are some of the biggest spenders in the world on R&D. Key components like semiconductors are leading the tech trend for miniaturisation, and the ability to produce at nanoscale size means implementing precision techniques way beyond what humans are capable of. That is the future writ clear.
Mass-production has been re-inventing itself over recent years to respond to consumers’ desires for ever more customised products and variety of product range. Nike’s sports shoe production is an example.
In fact, a BCG survey in 2016 found that 90% of car manufacturers expect that a modular assembly line setup will be standard in final production by 2030. This will allow models with different components and features to all come off the same assembly line, saving an enormous amount of time currently used for re-tooling and so on between product runs.
A company like Vention, which specialises in technologies and applications for component manufacture in modular parts, offers an easily uploaded CAD design of the equipment they want, and within 3 days, they can receive specialised tooling or robot equipment to fit their precise needs.
When it comes to efficiency, there are simple, systemised tasks which can be carried out by what is known as a ‘cobot’ (collaborative robot) – a fairly simple robotic arm, for example, which completes the task quickly, helping the factory to enhance efficiency in the assembly process.
Components manufacturing in several areas, be it nano-technology, car parts or heavy engineering, will be harnessing the power and versatility of 3D printing given the trend towards the adaptability and flexibility of custom-production runs. Returning to the leisure foot-ware sector, an interesting example is Adidas, which has established a joint venture with Carbon to mass-print customised athletic shoes.
Where industrial 3D printing is concerned, there are a multitude of small start-ups keen to enter the market at a modest size to deliver advanced materials which include carbon fiber or other metals with exotic properties. 3-D printing is eminently scalable, so their hope is for rapid expansion as this component production technology takes hold.
There’s still a way to go, and the UK manufacturing sector faces a bracing challenge from the withdrawal from the EU to go alongside a clear imperative for investment in technological advances. Whether they are able to face the challenges of ‘Industry 4.0’ successfully over the long term is still up in the air.