U.S. manufacturing has hit a “make or break” point where it must be creative and think differently if it is to survive and flourish. Even with manufacturing hitting a 14-month high in May, it still faces challenges, both from COVID-19 and global competition, particularly in places like China. To facilitate American manufacturing growth and revival, we will have to think beyond the somewhat unspecific idea of “do more manufacturing.” We will need to investigate new, emerging forms of manufacturing we haven’t considered before, and we need forums that bring together players that don’t normally collaborate. We also need to look ahead at where the puck is heading and consider what new business models of manufacturing may emerge that are disruptive. If that sounds familiar, it’s because these are changes that have impacted the world of software development over the past several years. Luckily, we are now beginning to see analogous changes in manufacturing that hold the promise of a revival for the U.S.
The idea of giving emphasis to advanced manufacturing technologies has been pitched as a way to save manufacturing, and that’s part of the solution; but it requires some further examination. The idea of manufacturing complicated electronics and sensors rose alongside the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), but requires nuance because the IoT is such a vast, dynamic field filled with constant changes (similar to software development). This is no longer about making millions of the same exact product for years on. Rather, these products need to be customized, continually iterated to a broad range of use cases. In other words, those who are able to develop and manufacture products in an agile, adaptable way are poised to be winners.
An often overlooked aspect of reviving the model of manufacturing is also assuring its economic security and the robustness of supply chains. As we’ve seen in the ongoing struggle to secure our health workers with personal protective equipment (PPE), manufacturing innovation is essential to assure deliverables in any industry or to fill any large product need. Companies have been working on ways to assure the manufacturing pipeline, but corporate realities and lack of existing roadmaps for guidance have stymied their efforts.
That’s because, in large part, manufacturing is focused on mass production. This will remain an important aspect of manufacturing, but it should be by no means the only pipeline manufacturing depends on. There’s a new domain in the form of digital, on-demand manufacturing, and it’s in this aspect that manufacturing can take a page from a software developer’s book. This will be especially advantageous in aerospace and pharmaceutical products, which the National Association of Manufacturers says had a 14% job growth in California alone in 2018.
Specifically, this digital playbook mirrors the rise of app development in the software world. Gone (or at least deprioritized) are bulky, expensive software suites meant to manage various aspects of computing. In their place have risen small, customized pieces of software easily accessible and precisely honed to the one task at hand, whether that be a notetaking app or a meal delivery app. Each person’s smartphone is going to be a collection of their customized solutions to their everyday tasks and problems.
We’re starting to see a similar digital development in the realm of electronics manufacturing, with companies teaming to focus on customized electronics projects to fit various prototype and pilot-scale devices like wearable health monitors for people or on-fuselage structural monitors for aircraft. Conventional electronics is coming together with digital printing, molding technologies, fabrics, soft and stretchable materials that enable exciting new form factors for wearables, medical devices, automotive and aerospace. The fusion of these materials and process technologies opens up amazing design freedoms.
The initial driver is typically to enable new shapes, such as bendable, flexible electronics. We are finding that digital technologies, for example conformal printing or 3D printing of electronics, are quite powerful tools to achieve this. Importantly, the same digital tools also pave the way to customized, on-demand products. A new, very disruptive opportunity emerges for manufacturing that not only helps designers to make products of a unique look but also enables to fabricate them on-demand, only when an order is placed. This in turn lends strength to agile, small fabrication facilities in competition with large factories that are tuned to make one thing well.
Robotics and automation are an essential element of such agile factories, in conjunction with the right software to model and optimize parts before they are made as well as organize and manage the workflow of manufacturing. Manufacturing is also learning something from the software world in how development teams are structured. If we look at web development, we see that it’s gone from needing a team of multiple experts to model anything, to easily usable tools to help someone craft the page. You can go to WordPress now, and you no longer have to be a web wizard. With manufacturing, this will happen in the form of new design tools to aid advanced manufacturing and open the floor to new idea makers to expand the possibilities for what can be made.
The ways teams are formed for manufacturing can be adjusted to mirror the way software development teams are formed, broken up and reconnected for projects dynamically. Depending on the specific design concept, there’s wisdom in connecting different players that are able complement each other with their ideas, know-how and experiences. Hollywood film production crews work off this model as well, teaming up at different times for different projects. At NextFlex, the public-private Manufacturing USA institute devoted to flexible hybrid electronics, we’ve focused on building such dynamic ecosystem, and found that more new projects and ideas are born out of the forging of new project teams, increasing the rate of development and innovation needed by the overall manufacturing field.
Given manufacturing’s continued importance to the American economy, a lot of minds are coming up with ways to improve its standing. Regardless of the ideas that come out in the months and years ahead, manufacturing’s future is inevitably digital. Digital is what enables simulating complex designs before they are made. Digital enables products to be made customized, on demand. Digital enables us to organize and orchestrate the manufacturing process and connect the best ideas with most effective assets to realize them on. Digital makes it possible to iterate and respond to signals from end-users.
Developments in software serve an interesting clue for what to expect in terms of disruption in manufacturing. We are seeing the rise of digital, often additive fabrication tools that enable agile processes. At NextFlex, we are also seeing an exciting fusion of manufacturing technologies from different domains and it takes a diverse group of partner companies to make this happen. The impending changes open up new opportunities for not only what we are able to make but how we make it. We have the opportunity to reinvent the making of the wheel.
Janos Veres, Ph.D., is director of engineering, NextFlex.