Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Three top 21st century technology revolutions anticipated within the supply chain field

The age of big, complex and global supply chains is drawing to an end. Three emerging and converging technology revolutions: 3D printing, intelligent robotics and open source electronics are driving significant industry changes, impacting enterprises as well as governments.

3D printing

The first and most important revolution is 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. 3D printing uses technology similar to laser and inkjet printing to deposit layers of material on top of each other to build solid objects, a layer at a time. The technology has matured rapidly over the last two decades to the point where it is cheap enough for some consumers to buy their own printers. It frees companies from the need to build standard­ized parts and pursue economies of scale. To make the same size part, the time and cost is the same for  one as for a thousand copies of one part. 3D printers also eliminate the need for the costly and time-consuming creation of molds, enabling the step directly from a design to a part.

High-resolution desktop 3D printers are priced at about US$3000 today. The decrease in cost and size of 3D printers, along with improved accuracy and strength make it viable for makers and manufacturers to have more efficient design, lighter products and shorter product design cycles.

Not all materials can be 3D printed, however, about 30 industrial plastics, resins, metals and bio-materials are now supported, with conductive, dielectric materials and green polymers expected to be printable in ten years.

Stockless inventory models will result in smarter supply chains and lower risk in manufacturing. 3D printing will enable product customization to personal and demographic needs as retail models emerge, which engage the consumer in the product design process. Supply chains will also become more location elastic, as a result, bringing manufacturing closer to consumer.Transportation of fewer finished goods will alter global trade flows and the logistics industry, fundamentally transforming the principles of global mass production.

3D printing technology is already widespread in prototyping and specialized production applications like aerospace and jewelry. As costs fall, it is expected to transition into broad manufac­turing. 3D printing costs are expected to fall by 79 percent over the next five years – and by 92 percent over the next decade, making it more cost-effective than all except the largest comparable production processes.

Intelligent robotics

The second expected technology revolution is within intelligent robotics. In the last decade, a new and more flexible generation of robots has been integrated into production lines and adapted to new products. These systems can intel­ligently pick up items and place them correctly, adapt to variable rates of production flow and pick out correct items using machine vision. However, flexible robotics systems are still costly, taking weeks or months to design and configure for each step in the process, and costing US$200,000 or more per manufacturing cell.

The newest generation of robots has emerged in the last few years, and can be deployed for as little as US$25,000 each. They are also even more sophisticated than previous robot generations. They understand concepts such as production lines and they can be assigned to tasks without programming and designed to work safely with people in a manufacturing environment.

For manufacturers, the availability of cheaper robotics systems eases the search for low-cost assembly labor. Robotics will not replace all skilled labor, however, it allows for simple assembly operations at very low cost. This frees companies from excessively long supply chains and makes it possible to assemble products from components without transporting them to third parties for integration purposes.

Industrial robot sales have started to rise in recent years as costs have decreased and their capabilities have matured. Between 2009 and 2011, an International Federation of Robotics study found that their use in the Electronics industry rose from 18 to 23 percent. Improvements in robotic capabili­ties over time will continue to increase their usefulness, including: adaptive and reconfigurable assembly, safety, dexterous manipulation, correct-by-design manufacturing, unstructured environments and nano-manufacturing.

Open source electronics

Over the last decade, consumers and enterprises have become more comfortable with open source software. The purpose of embedded chips is to simplify products. Now, it is cheaper and faster to put a fully-integrated computer on every manufactured device than it is to develop a specialized, embedded chip.

Consumers have embraced these system-on-a-chip platforms to create open source hardware designs that add intelligence to devices, many of which can be produced by using 3D printers. Companies and individuals are publishing open source hardware designs using standardized components and developing open source software platforms that replicate system functionality. Whereas just a few years ago, consumers were sharing just 20 to 50 new open source product designs every month, today, there are more than 30,000 new designs every month.

For companies, the rise of open source electronics presents a dual opportunity. Running on a flexible platform translates to faster design cycle time. It also means that the marginal cost of adding significant intelligence to products is now almost zero. Open source electronics will bring the power and flexibility of complex control systems to a wide range of device types.

Of these three anticipated trends, which do you think will be the most impactful over the next century and beyond, and why?




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