vol 4 issue 15

Manufacturing goes online as Factory 2.0

8 September 2009
By Stephen Fox
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Web 2.0 combined with advanced manufacturing technologies (AMTs) could revitalise manufacturing, generate new employment, and reduce environmental impacts, argues E&T.

Advanced manufacturing technologies (AMTs) enable many new ways of combining materials and embedding functionality. As a result, they can make previously difficult trade-offs practical, such as geometric complexity versus production time and cost.

Now though, AMTs can also revitalise manufacturing and generate new employment - when they are combined with Web 2.0. This 'second generation' of World Wide Web applications has moved away from static Web pages to dynamic, shareable content, and has thereby fuelled the creation of many new product ideas. It has also enabled social networks such as Facebook, Flickr and YouTube to rapidly propagate new ideas around the world.

Already a few companies - such as Fabjectory, Figure-Prints, Ponoko and Shapeways - have recognised the possibilities of this combination, called by some 'Factory 2.0'. For example, Fabjectory and FigurePrints take digital data that describes a customer's character (or 'avatar') in a virtual game, and then manufacture a 3D physical image. In doing so, they connect the synthetic economy of virtual world transactions with the real economy of exchanging physical goods for money.

Similarly, Ponoko offers kits through its website to help individual customers design and make a variety of physical goods, while Shapeways helps individual customers to design and sell products that can be produced by additive layer manufacturing.

AMTs can be grouped into three categories: subtractive (e.g. electrical discharge machining, high-speed milling, laser processing); forming (e.g. direct production casting, incremental sheet forming, reconfigurable molds, robotic bending); and additive (e.g. 3D printing, laser sintering, stereolithography, ultrasonic consolidation). The range of AMTs enables production of everything from molecular-sized solid components to very large volumetric products such as entire buildings. Common across AMTs is their potential to be digitally-driven by direct transfer of digital data from, for example, designs and/or scans.

Environmental impact

Use of AMTs can lead to significant reductions in environmental impact. For example, materials consumption can be cut by eliminating traditional subtractive processes, minimising tooling, manufacturing topologically optimised components, and producing consolidated assemblies.

AMTs can also enable big reductions in energy consumption by replacing traditional processes where energy is consumed in large-scale heating and cooling cycles. And they can reduce fuel consumption by enabling point-of-demand production of consolidated assemblies, which have traditionally been manufactured as several separate parts at several different locations.

Until now, established product brand holders, such as Electrolux, Lego, and Philips, have used Web 2.0 to harvest the great product ideas of ordinary people via on-line communities and competitions. They have then fed those great ideas into their design departments. In doing so, they have stuck with the format of concentrated design, production and dispatch that began with the industrial revolution.

The drawback is that using Web 2.0 in this way can make a brand holder's operation more complex, rather than less. For example, there can be many more product ideas to evaluate, and they can have many more product types that need to be designed, manufactured, and packaged. Alternatively, a choice may be made to discard 99 per cent of the product ideas harvested via the Web. This avoids adding complexity into operations but can of course lead to many opportunities being missed.

Brand holders could instead harness the full potential of Web 2.0 by allowing people who come up with new product ideas to operate design and production under licence, using AMTs. Some established brand holders already provide Web-based design tools. The next step is for them to allow transfer of digital design data to point-of-demand AMTs.

In addition to the reduction of environmental impacts, Factory 2.0 offers brand holders at least four other advantages. First, they do not add complexity into existing design and production. Second, opportunities for potential sales within their brand are not missed. Third, demand for core brand products is stimulated by the profusion of new add-on products introduced via Web 2.0 plus point-of-demand AMTs. And fourth, established brand holders receive a royalty for each sale.

Onshore production

The advantage for national economies is that the people who come up with new product ideas can, depending on the amount of sales, make some money, employ themselves, and set up businesses employing others. Also, Factory 2.0 enables work to stay where product ideas originate, rather than being offshored. In other words, the 300 year-old paradigm of concentrated design, production and dispatch carried out by experts can be supplemented by a new method of highly distributed sustainable ideation, propagation and creation of physical products - enabled by Web 2.0 plus AMTs.

An even bigger opportunity for generating new employment is for individuals to generate ideas and propagate products outside of existing brands. Consider, for example, how downloading enabled by Web 2.0 has allowed open digital propagation of new music to supersede closed physical distribution of music. Previously, new music had to pass through the high control gates of brand holders such as record labels. These control gates are high because of the high prior investments of brand holders and their suppliers. By contrast, digital propagation of music via Web 2.0 requires such low investment that almost anybody can offer their musical work for sale. Now, there is no fundamental reason why digital design data cannot be downloaded on demand, so design can be carried out anywhere a product idea originates, and production can be carried out at any point of demand - both in time and place.

Moreover, point-of-demand production can include the manufacture of products with a high level of functionality. This can be achieved with 'direct-write' additive manufacturing machines, which can incorporate the functionality of circuits, sensors, controls etc., into assemblies during their production.

To enable highly distributed point-of-demand production, suppliers could install AMT equipment at a variety of locations including wholesaler premises (for B2B sales) and retail outlets (for B2C sales). Selling production time on AMT machines could generate additional income for established AMT suppliers, and when there are enough sales, new businesses based on Factory 2.0 products could buy or lease their own AMT machines and locate them at points-of-demand.

The creation of physical products with AMTs includes their design as well as their production, so the full potential of Factory 2.0 will be unlocked when people who are not AMT experts are able to carry out both design and production. User-friendly AMTs, such as 3D printers, are becoming increasingly affordable through the efforts of established machine companies and communities of AMT enthusiasts. Thus, production by non-AMT experts is becoming feasible and viable.

As well as people with great new product ideas, non-AMT experts are customers for a wide range of products. Examples are displaced people who need to make robust low-cost housing, medical technicians who need to make prosthetics, maintenance personnel who need to make replacement fittings, gift shoppers who want to make jewellery, and children who want to make toys.

Shape computation

Today, design for production by AMTs is largely the domain of experts. However, shape computation methods have already been developed which can enable product design by almost anybody. Shape computation enables the generation of an infinite number of new designs which meet a few critical criteria such as AMT processes and performance safety.

The generative design tool of the company, Genometri, provides an example of how shape computation can accelerate and expand product design. However, as illustrated by the example of Linux, powerful computational tools do not have to remain in the hands of just a few companies. Rather, shape computation for AMTs can be open-source and available to all. Indeed, much of the work in setting up shape computation is quite straightforward. A first step is to define a vocabulary of basic shapes through decomposition.

The form of a mobile phone, for example, can be decomposed into body and fascia. Then, fascia can be decomposed into curves, and curves can be decomposed into sub-shapes such as lines. Sub-shapes are defined with algebras so they can be recognised and/or reconstructed throughout computation. Other steps include formulating rules for manipulation of shapes, and writing algorithms which enable computation of rules.

Setting up shape computation for original designs and AMT production involves combining skills in engineering and computing. Established brand holders may have all necessary skills in-house or within their value chains. Existing SMEs which do not have all necessary skills, but want to participate in Factory 2.0, can get additional skills through government schemes such as the UK's Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. More generally, Web 2.0 offers everybody a global platform for open source collaboration in the development of user-friendly AMT design tools.

In conclusion, it is important to recognise that the established template of concentrated design, production and dispatch by experts will continue to be useful for some types of products. Nonetheless, the established template has limited potential to minimise environmental impacts, and to generate new regional employment. By contrast, Factory 2.0 can create new jobs anywhere that product ideas originate - and enable much lower consumption of materials and energy wherever there is demand for those products.


Dr Stephen Fox is a senior research scientist at VTT, the Technical Research Centre of Finland.

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