I live and work in a manufacturing town. I've worked for medium to largish manufacturers (500 people), to small ones (~15 people), and a couple in between. There are a lot of opportunities for technology, especially software, to improve these companies. At the moment all of the software that I have seen implemented is focussed on accounting and production management. Office stuff. Very little makes it to the production floor - this is where I think the largest gains have yet to be made.
Specifically: AR safety glasses providing real data to production staff, Google Glass style. At some point, I want to be part of making that happen.
With the rise of hardware startups though, we're seeing entrepreneurs get into the dirty parts of the system - maybe some will then go on to solve some of these problems that they personally run into.
Even then, only the biggest clients spent money. Since then -- post dotcom bust, 9/11, Bush looting of economy, rise of online, decline of advertising, switch from offset CMYK press to digital composite printing (eg color laserjet), rise of ebooks -- there's even less money for capital improvements.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can't imagine printers staying ahead of the phenomenal rate of technical change AND the constantly shifting marketplace.
So I think the print manufacturers have had a pretty good strategy: huge initial investment and then ride that sled all the way to the bottom.
Anticipating the disruptive near term technologies for all manufacturing (eg 3D printing, mass customization), I just don't see a sizable market for 3rd party software coming back.
I've half-concluded that smart software/IT investment money would be for in house development. To out run one's competitors.
That's true of most things that are new, though. It's a sales issue, and one that can be overcome.
but without the ease of understanding their problems.
I'd have to strongly disagree here. You can easily understand their problems like any other industry and company, dive in, talk to them, and/or get involved in the industry.
This generally filters the people with experience in manufacturing who are already set in their ways.
That is painting with broad strokes, I think.
This isn't a new phenomenon, though. Apple, IBM, Pitney Bowes, Ford, etc. etc. were all hardware startups at one time. Many manufacturing problems have been solved and hammered through for many decades. Many of those are transferring over into newer industries. Many Lean Software principles seem to be oddly similar to JIT, and Lean Manufacturing principles established decades earlier.
The opportunities that I think exist in manufacturing aren't for automation as mentioned in the OP, that has also been around for decades. I think the real opportunities are in truly empowering the workforce with technology that bridges the gap between the guy on the plant floor, the CFO, and the customer. It's simply massive, and it doesn't have to be.
- Broadly speaking manufacturing can be lumped into to production models: high-volume, low product mix, and low-volume high product mix. Most of the manufacturers that you will recognize from a consumer standpoint are the former, but most of the ones that I've worked for and toured in the local area are the latter. Many automation systems are not cost effective for high product mix mfgrs.
- There is a ton of software used in manufacturing - not just at the ERP/MRP level, but all the way down to the production floor. Some of it is COTS, but much of it is custom.
- 3D Printing may be buzz worthy, but I don't think it's applicable to most manufacturing operations. Wherever you are while reading this, look around you and count the number of things that could have been made with a 3D printer, and then ask yourself whether 3D printing cycle times (and therefore cost) would scale to large operations.
- "API's for Manufacturing" sounds a bit nebulous. When you run a manufacturing operation, there are 4 main drivers for improvement: quality, cost, delivery, and inventory. If you have a single factory producing good on demand via an API, it sounds like a job shop, and would have a limited range of capabilities. If the API interfaced with a network of manufacturing operations, each with its own specialty, then those 4 drivers become significant hurdles.
3D Printing claims to do this, but as mentioned it's limited in what you can do - so that's going to take quite some time to get right (20years).
It'll be interesting to see the ReThink Robotics launch coming up to see if their system can help alleviate some of these problems.
That is quite far from the truth. Having been in many plants, automation is almost everywhere. The pay-back period on automation (Variable Speed Drives, for example) is under a year.
If you watch an updated version of the crayon process (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xl1v1m_you-ve-got-crayola-c...), you see how many of those people have been replaced by robots. A fully burdened worker salary (~$70k) can buy you a good deal of robots.
Now personally I love manufacturing porn, I don't know why but I can watch an hour or two of 'How its Made' and just spin all these ideas about in my head. And what you see when you watch more than a bit of that show is that there are things that are designed to be built by automation, and things that aren't.
So on the one hand you look at things that aren't made to be automated and you think "Hmm, can I disrupt that market by designing an automated way to build that widget?" or as the OP wrote you might think "Hmm what pieces need to be assembled to make an arbitrary widget?"
One of the things that came up in an earlier thread was that you could go across the street in Shenzen(sp?) and have an arbitrary fastener made. Things take lots of fasteners, and they are essential to manufacturing, but making them requires specific tooling for each kind. Can that be automated? Can I make a factory that will make an arbitrary fastener in small quantities (say 1,000) efficiently or cost effectively? You know steel rod in one side of various diameters and fasteners out the other. And then what would the API be to that factory? Select Head, diameter, material, length, quantity? Maybe finish?
One of the things that mixing sizes on the assembly line would have is keeping them separate, but have you seen how fast a pick-n-place robot can sort things? Could you just have a tray full of random fasteners come out of the anodizing tank and have a robot sort them into types?
Very interesting times coming up.
I also like manufacturing porn, so I made a playlist you might like:
Also, if automation is almost everywhere how come Foxconn has 1.2 million employees?
I was at Ford's Rouge River plant in Detroit and there were about 10 robots in the Assembly doing high-precision work (installing the windshield) - and a lot of ergonomics and fixturing for the overwhelming amount of humans that were screwing the F150's together by hand. I know this is partially the fault of unions - but still pretty crazy it's done like this.
With all deserved thanks to rails and cloud hosting, this is stretching way too far.
I hope I get to be a part of it.
Take the task of manufacturing and bringing to market an electronic product. Here's an incomplete list of some of the tasks requiring attention:
- Schematic design
- Mechanical design
- Machined metal
- Sheet metal
- Wire harnesses
- Optics (for lights, light pipes, etc.)
- Label, decal or printing design (legends, etc.)
- DFM (Design for Manufacturing
- Component sourcing
- Staging according to lead times
- Strategy to ensure long-term availability
- Testing methodologies
- PCB Layout
- Electronic Assembly
- Surface mount
- Through hole
- Manual soldering
- X-ray inspection
- Automated optical inspection
- Device Programming
- Packaging design
- Injection molded
- Cut and glued
- International variants
- Regulatory testing
- Other countries
- Mechanical manufacturing
- Injection molded plastics
- Sheet metal
- Stamped metal
- Mold making
- Jigs and fixtures
- Software development
- Develop testing and methodologies
- Support scripts
- Support systems
- And more...
There are issues that are not obvious from simply reading this list. For example, entrenched systems and software that does not inter-operate. Disciplines that require massively different infrastructures (machine shop, plastic molding, packaging, PDB assembly, wire harness fabrication) and are sometimes islands in and of themselves.
Just looking at CNC machining is an example of how arcane things can be and how difficult it can be to change the way things work. CNC machine manufacturers use G-code (which is older than dirt). You'd think that by now this would be a smooth system. It isn't. Software vendors produce tools that require customization for each machine type and, even then, can produce g-code that is actually dangerous to run.
I had exactly this experience when I decided that we needed to have our own CNC machining in-house. We bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of (mostly) Haas equipment. All g-code was generated with a CAM tool that ran inside of Solidworks. I'll fast forward to the day that one of the machines --with a 20 Horsepower spindle-- happily churned aluminum with a one inch roughing bit like it was butter. It was amazing to watch, and it sounded horrible. The CAM program simply put out the wrong instructions because the engineers who created it in India decided to have their own creative interpretation of how G-code should work.
Anyhow, the point is that manufacturing is hard and complex. That's why you don't see Y-Combinator style "Here's $15K, go start a company" incubators doing real hardware. In the hardware world, outside of the trivial, $15K won't even cover the tooling.
Maybe in a few hundred years we'll have Star Trek style replicators. How cool would that be.
Shipwire does this in fulfillment but the cost can be a barrier, and mfg.com or Alibaba are a step in the right direction but don't necessarily address the trust you need to have with your suppliers in lieu of becoming an expert. It's too much of a Wild West right now, and we need a sheriff.
Alas, it's not yet as simple as the "Print to China" that manufacturing-as-a-service promises. There are currently too many human translation layers that would impede reliable manufacturing APIs.
A big issue manufacturing faces is that none of the people starting companies are software guys - all of them are MechE's or something who think hardware first, so the CAM ends up far worse the controller (probably a FANUC...), which is far worse than the physical machine - you do what you know.
Certainly, trying to go from CAD --> finished consumer product ain't happening next year, but we're seeing signs that we'll see that with more simple processes pretty soon.
Adjusting a CNC machine is very complicated and requires a lot of experience and skill.
One lesson learned is, that craftmans that learned on shitty old russian manuel lathes did a lot better on modern machines than the ones that learned on super precise automated modern western machines.
The abstraction layer between metall and man that modern machines make does impede the feeling for the process.
The feeling and understanding of the cutting is essantial to make a good cut, weather it is automated or not.
Craftmansship is not automatable, weather it is software engineering or manfucatoring.
Bad news for some managers and fantasts.
I am one of those rare engineers who is equally at home writing embedded software, web software, iOS software, workstation software, designing electronics hardware (from simple analog go GHz range FPGA's) as well as mechanical.
And, of course, as a total geek, I also jumped into the manufacturing processes for all of the above. I am equally at home in front of a SMT pick-and-place machine as I am in front of a VMC or a table-saw.
I have to tell you that some of the most gut-wrenching design work I've had to face sometimes wasn't how to design the thing but figuring out how to actually make it. From specialized fixtures to custom tooling or a weird manufacturing process.
Frankly, this is some of the most valuable knowledge that our country is loosing to other shores as manufacturing continues to be decimated. It's one thing to know how to use a VMC. It is an entirely different thing to know how to engineer, setup and execute on an end-to-end manufacturing process.
First thing the damn pre-processor does is a rapid traverse in x and y to the center of the pocket, WITHOUT raising the tool to safe "flight altitude". I was lucky in that I was using a vacuum chuck and a block of machinable wax for these tests, otherwise it could have been really ugly (broken tool and potential collision of the spindle with clamps leading to torquing the column out of vertical).
As a programmer who's used nearly every computer programming language from machine code, Forth, APL, C++, ObjectiveC and everything in-between I have always felt that G-Code is stuck somewhere in the Mesozoic era. Sure, it works, but one could certainly talk to these machines in far better ways.
Make tools that provide constraints that reflect the real world, in the hands of the designer. How often do you see beautiful design concepts that have zero draft or unmoldable overhangs? If those are things that are irrelevant with additive printing, then render the preview in no greater resolution than what the printer can produce, and identify the grain along which your part will break.
This will lead us to what my partner calls augmented fabrication. He prototyped Part Preview, a "Print Preview" for milling machines, projecting toolpaths onto your material or using a Kinect to intersect the blank with the model (unfortunately, no documentation except for http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/20111010/lab-report-2 and a thesis paper).
We need tighter integration between the software used to design objects and the hardware that manufactures them. Protomold is a step in the right direction. Because they control much of the process, they can tell you how your uploaded design needs to change to be manufacturable. That's an API for manufacturing - it digitizes something about the physical process. And it's a great educational tool. It's all about reducing the length of the feedback loop so that we can make mistakes and learn faster.
On the other hand, there is definitely some fun to be had in hardware for the low volume budget hacker. We have arduinos, raspberry pi's, all kinds of components available at outlets like digikey and mouser, relatively cheap custom pcb manufacturing, and somewhat low cost high resolution 3D printed custom enclosures.
Many of them now have internet services where you can upload a set of photos and get them delivered to your door within a few days printed in various ways and binded as a professional book.
Dew what? I don't even....
Is there a world I'm unaware of that this is true for? 'Cause I'd sure like to know about it!
"APIs are the future of Manufacturing" or something is a bit better.