“Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” If only life in manufacturing were as simple as it is in the milieu of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’, where matter converters called replicators handle all the basics and provide near-exact copies of inanimate items on demand.
And yet, are we going that way over the next decade? Increasingly, low-wage economies provide the basics, while industry in countries such as the UK focuses on innovation and the kind of one-offs that Captain Pickard’s replicator can’t manage.
“UK manufacturing is probably heading in the Formula One direction - high value in low volumes, with flexibility and rapid change. That’s what we’re good at,” says Gus Desbarats, chairman of product design company TheAlloy. He adds that while some things will still be the same by 2020, if manufacturers want to survive, they must figure out their real role in the world.
“Ten years is shorter than people think, and certain forces remain consistent, such as human nature, economics, and so on,” he says. “But if you just make things for a living you’re pretty low down the value chain. It’s not what you make, it’s the benefit you offer your customer, and knowing what the customer wants.
“The shift is from knowing how to do things to knowing what to do. People don’t buy boilers, they buy heat. And Roll-Royce is not a manufacturing company, it’s a service company that happens to use manufacturing technology.
“The 10-year thing depends entirely on your perspective. We deal with some manufacturing companies that haven’t changed in 15 years and others that are leading-edge. What matters is where is the useful IP - you need to have done the value-chain analysis and defined yourself on what value you are to people.”
Of course, innovative engineering and technology will still drive a lot of the changes in manufacturing industry - and there is plenty of both coming up over the next decade or so.
“People from 10 years ago would recognise today’s factories, yet there have been big changes - whole industries have appeared and disappeared,” says Prof Ken Young, director of Warwick University’s Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre (IMRC).
“We’ve got new techniques too. Ten years ago we didn’t have aluminium cars - now we have the Jaguar XJ and others that are fully aluminium.”
The next decade will see many more technologies become routine parts of the manufacturing landscape. Young says lasers will be an important one to track: “They’re being used more and more, mainly because the price has come right down. We’ve just bought a 200micron CO2 one from China for £2,000 - it can do surface treatments such as engraving.”
Electronics built from polymers, rather than silicon, are another technology with the potential to catalyse big changes in manufacturing, predicts Prof Martin Goosey, industrial director of the IeMRC (electronics IMRC) at Loughborough University.
“Polymer electronics are starting to emerge now and will enable new applications, even wearable electronics,” he says. “We will also see much more printed electronics, both devices printed to order and on large areas such as hoardings, where it doesn’t have to switch fast but it could be on all the time. We could even see lighting built into wallpaper.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that many of these technologies have been in the works for years, but still haven’t made the mainstream, he says, adding: “I was involved in liquid crystals in 1973, and it’s only quite recently they’ve reached TVs.”
Another mainstreaming technology is RFID. Many experts expect integral smart RFID to be standard by 2020, allowing companies to monitor both the whole manufacturing process and product life-cycle.
“We’re at the start of this process with proximity RFID labels,” says Jeremy Hartford, managing director at plant-floor management specialist Mestec. “By 2020, these will be superseded by more intelligent technologies that enable continuous visibility for remote operations and across the supply chain.”
IT and communications have plenty more potential right across manufacturing, agrees Gus Desbarat: “IT is a huge opportunity to add value by 2020, it allows you to get closer to your customer and get more embedded in their systems - I do think collaborative innovation will happen more.
“Mass customisation will be routine. It’s all about IT and then rapid prototyping becoming rapid manufacturing.
“Embedded mobile technology will be a big driver too, for example letting you know if your boiler is working, and giving anticipation of failure via smart sensors and failure patterns. Smart materials will be sophisticated, with property detection embedded at a very low level.”
He continues: “Whatever business you run, you need to track the IT/comms trend. One of the main drivers over the last few years has been IT. You could do worse than look at the graphs for processing power, comms bandwidth and so on, and ask what the Web will be capable of in 10 years.”
IT will also mean more intelligence in the factory, says Mirko Baecker, marketing director EMEA for digital manufacturing at Siemens PLM Software. Self-organised and independent work-cells will take low-level decisions themselves, for example to balance loads by re-routing work, and will communicate with humans only when more important decisions are needed, he says.
“Assembly processes that need five tasks in different places today will all be in one cell,” he adds. “Control behaviour might change too, for example with the controller and the plant in different places. Some manufacturers are now moving their lines back from Asia to Europe, because they see the innovation process is more located in Europe. In future though, the location of the plant will depend on the availability of power and resources, and European manufacturers will need to produce or find the energy they need.”
More IT in manufacturing should also mean better connections within the company, notes Steven Hargreaves, group product director at software developer Solarsoft Business Systems. “There is still a major disconnect between the shop floor and what is happening in the back office,” he says.
“At the moment, the board are making business decisions on information in ERP systems, whereas staff on the shop-floor rely on data held in manufacturing execution systems. This mismatch also reflects a psychological disconnect between the planners and the shop floor - we still see very poor communication between these two areas of the business.”
Turning flexibility into versatility
A big thing in 2020 will be to look outside your own industry, finding innovations that you could adopt - and looking for opportunities in other areas where you sell your expertise.
For example, new applications for ceramics in electronics could open doors for pottery companies. Similarly, a brick-maker needs to be aware of new techniques in prefabricated buildings that might change its market, or of new materials that could be turned into bricks.
Manufacturers also need to be open to the possibility that by 2020 new equipment will enable new working practices and overturn assumptions, says Alan Braithwaite, chairman of LCP Consulting and a visiting professor at Cranfield University.
“The LCP - lowest cost producer - era of the 90s was all driven by centralisation and scale, then there was a huge upswing in offshoring and outsourcing,” he says. “I predict a level of reversal, but not wholesale reversal, with a new era driven by smaller plants, reduced break-even points, lower logistics costs, and greater economies of scale designed in.
“For example, where a car plant used to be designed to make 250,000 to 400,000 a year, the Japanese have now got it to 30,000 to 40,000 per model, with fewer penalties for scale. We’ve seen it in industrial chemicals, lubricants and so on - it’s almost the microbrewery concept coming into other industries, provided you have a niche.
“The challenge is you have to be able to understand and calculate your total cost. It’s the hidden costs of inventory, which include waste and reprocessing, that get you, and if you get it wrong the cost can be far greater than the margin earned.”
Learning to lean
“Companies are also experimenting with different production facilities, such as flow instead of batch in pharmaceuticals. It makes factories smaller and you can put them where you need them,” says Warwick’s Ken Young. He adds that if there’s one thing that ought to happen by 2020, it’s lean manufacturing.
“In 10 years, I’d like to think we’ll all be doing lean properly,” he says. “The problem is everyone thinks they’re doing it properly now and that their processes are under control, but they’re not. They take only parts of it, and it appears to work short-term but then they discover they’ve ignored whole ‘non added value’ parts of their industry.”
“Lean is a much-abused term,” agrees Dr Tom McGovern, a lecturer at Newcastle University Business School who specialises in operations, management and logistics, and has worked with the EU’s ERIP (European Regions for Innovative Productivity) programme to take lean learning to small and mid-sized manufacturers.
“Most companies have a long way to go to become leaner,” he says. “You have to look much more at taking out waste, managing your supply chain, building better relationships with suppliers, and delivering on-time products the meet the customer’s requirements.
“To be honest, it took companies like Nissan eight years here in the UK to get their plants up to standard. It’s not going to be an overnight development - it requires training, the problem is finding ways of delivering that training and making it accessible to smaller companies.”