The future of manufacturing may be distinctly digital, but the challenges lie in the application.

Stephen Dyson, special operations manager at Protolabs provides some much needed clarification.

I don’t need to tell any of you where the future of manufacturing lies.

Digitalisation and Industry 4.0 has been at the top of the agenda for long enough now that we all know it is what the future holds.

But it’s one thing knowing where we are heading and another thing entirely working out exactly how we will get there.

Because the journey to digital transformation will involve not only changing your own factory floor and the perceptions and working patterns of your workforce, but a pretty fundamental transformation of the supply chain beyond it and the national infrastructure which supports all businesses.

We should all have, by now, a fairly clear picture of the benefits which digital transformation will bring. Lead-times will be cut significantly, on-demand production and mass customisation will become the norm and connectivity, rather than geography or size, will be the determining factor in a company’s ability to compete globally.

Connectivity brings with it the ability to reshape the traditional value chain in a way that has not been previously possible. Rather than wholesalers and retailers having to carry huge quantities of stock in order to meet the demands of individual consumers, there is now the clear opportunity for customers to order what they need directly and expect delivery almost immediately.

By interacting with online product configuration tools and web-based ERP order-taking systems, customers can be certain of getting exactly what they want, when they want it, without the need to compromise because the part they want is not in stock or might take weeks to manufacture if it needs making from scratch.


Simplified sharing

What lies behind all this – sitting right at the heart of the changes sweeping through our factories – is the ease at which data can now be shared.

Just a few years ago, data sharing was a cumbersome affair which quite often didn’t even extend smoothly across the factory floor. It relied at almost every turn on human intervention, with all the hiccups, inconsistencies and damage to productivity that can bring.

Now, of course, digital connectivity means data can be shared seamlessly and automatically, not just within and across the factory, but also with partners throughout the supply chain and with customers and end users.

It is this rich stream of data, more than any single gadget or piece of high-tech machinery, which is powering Industry 4.0 by helping to drive down costs, increase turnaround speeds, improve quality and allow for increased automation.

It means that data can be shared from the moment a product is conceived, through the design, prototyping and manufacturing stages, and then back again for redesign. Crucially, all the back office and auxiliary functions of the business can also be integrated within this data process to further improve efficiency and lower costs.

Take the work we do at Protolabs as an example.

We can be sent a CAD design of a part or prototype one day, and have a working model ready for delivery the next because of the adoption of our own bespoke software and high-levels of data sharing boosting automation.

How does this work? In a nutshell, the information from the integrated part quoting and toolpathing systems is automatically shared with the production floor, where video displays allow workers to see real-time information on job queues, set-up requirements, production, and quality metrics. Likewise, status information is automatically collected as jobs progress through the manufacturing process, and then fed back into the MRP and inventory control systems.

It’s a closed-loop system, one that requires less human intervention on the production floor and more in front of a computer. This reduces manufacturing costs, increases throughput and gives management the much needed data to make intelligent decisions.


Radical reductions

Because of this, Protolabs has grown from a small start-up into a 2,500-employee (globally), $264 (£217) million company specialising in quick-turn moulding, machining, and 3D printing, and more, capable of delivering plastic, metal, and liquid silicone parts in days. This is the essence of digital manufacturing.

Of course, this smooth transfer of data is also allied to some impressive advances in technology, such as the massive growth in 3D printing and the benefits it is bringing to the manufacturing process.

By sharing data and integrating additive and subtractive processes – traditionally at opposite ends of the manufacturing process – we have transformed production and been able to reduce costs and manufacturing lead-times to levels which open up global markets to a huge range of new, pioneering innovators.

Our web-based automated quoting system for instance, provides real time pricing provided by proprietary software that translates digital 3D CAD models into instructions for high-speed manufacturing equipment.

The almost infinite variety of objects — and iterations of those objects — that 3D printing can produce, means there is much less need to carry a lengthy product inventory. Complex parts are built using the exact amount of material needed, resulting in minimal excess and waste. This streamlines the production of prototypes and parts, leading to an efficient global supply chain.

Getting started

So how does the journey into this brave new digital world start? Integration is key to success – so a thorough audit of all your processes – and those of your supply chain partners where possible – is needed to see just where you can gain value.

Back office systems need updating, and customer-facing web applications developed. Analytics matter more. And businesses typically find that their workforce skill profile needs to change—traditional manufacturing skills become less important, while skillsets in digital manufacturing, robotics, and automation become more important.

This is the point at which Industry 4.0 needs to align with wider society. In the UK, research found an extra 1.8 million engineers and technically qualified people are needed by 2025. In addition, there’s currently a shortfall of 20,000 engineering graduates each year.

Surveys have shown that the careers in manufacturing and engineering are often unattractive to the brightest of our youngsters because of outdated perceptions about what they involve. They simply don’t see them as cutting-edge jobs at the forefront of new technology.

But Smart factories are replacing primitive production plants, with workers now spending more time at computers and less time at manufacturing equipment. And advancements around newer processes, like 3D printing, are continually pushing the limits of conventional manufacturing.

Companies need people who can adapt to, and evolve with, swiftly changing technology. And for that, we all need to play our part in ensuring that investment in education reflects the pace of change in our workplaces. If we can achieve that, the future is not just digital, it’s hugely attractive.