Published in 1909, E M Forster’s novella The Machine Stops envisaged a post-apocalyptic world in which most humans lived underground and relied on a giant machine for everything they needed. The story predicted new technologies, including the Internet and instant messaging, but when the machine stopped there was no-one able to repair it, the consequence was that underground humanity was wiped out, leaving the few who remained on the surface to restore the human race.
What makes this relevant today is that technology can appear to do anything provided there are people who not only know how current technologies work but are able to maintain them and innovate to develop new ones. It’s being said more often that with the ever onward march of disruptive technologies in the future people will become almost irrelevant in terms of being needed to operate machinery. More and more tasks on production lines, for example, are being carried out by robots, and the advances in robotics mean there will be further automation of jobs once carried out by workers.
So what are disruptive technologies?
The age of change
All ages see changes, sometimes massively so, and this era is one of them. For some manufacturers disruptive technologies may appear to pose a threat, especially when current systems are working well. Effectively, disruptive technologies is the name given to new technologies that will change operations and mindsets that are resistant to them to effect lasting and positive transformation.
Deploying to the cloud
Any manufacturer using Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) would do well to consider moving this process to the cloud. Instead of having to constantly upgrade hardware and software on one or a number of sites, cloud-based ERP, hosted by a provider, means the system will be updated by that provider so businesses will not need costly upgrades and new versions. This both saves time (for installation and upgrading software and hardware) and money, as it works through a monthly subscription model. Capital is freed up to invest elsewhere, operational costs are significantly reduced and there can be large improvements to on-time deliveries.
The mobility issue
With billions of mobile devices in use worldwide the issue of mobility for manufacturing personnel has increased in importance. The ability of these personnel to perform critical tasks when moving around the shop floor or visiting job sites and customers means they need to use tablets or smartphones to access real time data remotely. If knowledge is power then data is dominant, and mobile solutions give personnel immediate control over information they need to interact with customers, clients and colleagues. Levels of productivity can be increased as production points and business units on the shop floor can be monitored. Businesses that deploy mobile solutions for their personnel, who are likely to be already mobile savvy, will see the gains when operations are integrated with mobile platforms.
3D printing has come on in leaps and bounds since it was invented over 30 years ago and has revolutionized some manufacturing procedures. Also known as additive manufacturing, the process entails developing a digital file using Computer Aided Design (CAD) from which a three-dimensional printed object is created. Successive layers of material are laid down, following the digital commands, until the whole object is created. 3D printing is used in many manufacturing industries including:
- Automotive: an early adopter of this disruptive technology, the industry has moved on from printing relatively simple concept models for design verification and fit and finish checks to using the process to make functional parts for use in test engines, vehicles and platforms.
- Aerospace and aviation: the industry is extremely high-tech in terms of what it needs to manufacture and 3D printing is now an integral part of how it produces its complex machines. The ability to produce thousands of components for what is a low production sector by this method rather than traditional manufacturing enables the process to be faster, lighter and with less waste. Consequently costs can be significantly reduced compared with casting or injection molding.
- Medical industry: specialists in the industry are using 3D printing in more and more advanced ways, with patients worldwide benefiting from printed prosthetics and implants that significantly improve the quality of their care.
Robots have always been a popular theme in science fiction, whether it be in films or books, and the concept of humanoid robots, brilliantly realized in Isaac Asimov’s book I Robot is now being taken further and further by innovative inventors and designers. Manufacturers will be familiar and probably use robots fixed to the factory floor to carry out repetitive tasks that used to be carried out by people. Automation of tasks has the inevitable consequence that there will be fewer “real” jobs available, though for many workers the repetitive and robotic nature of their job this may be a blessing in disguise. Machines are also used for highly technical work that is either difficult or impossible for a human to achieve, and the development of Artificial Intelligence has stretched the envelope in terms of what robots might or might not be able to do in the future. As the technology moves forward and becomes more affordable, especially for smaller manufacturers, this is a disruptive technology that innovative businesses may want to explore further.
The Internet of Things
The concept of the Internet of Things, or IoT, has been around for decades and at its core it means connecting a whole range of devices over the Internet. It allows devices to communicate with their owners, talk to each other and to applications. One application it can be used for as a smart meter in relation to heating and energy use. A device that allows a manufacturer to remotely control the level of heating in a factory, for example, could make significant cost savings.
Who really knows? Technological invention and innovation will forge ahead in new and unexpected ways. Manufacturers that adopt disruptive technologies early on are likely to get major benefits down the line.