by John Hitch
For the first time since 2014, the U.S. didn’t see a
month-to-month decline in manufacturing jobs even once,
according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. From April
to May, they did stay the same, but we’ll take a tie over a
loss any day. What’s more notable is that manufacturing
unemployment hit 3.2% twice (May and October), the lowest since June 2000 ( 3.1%).
Whether this is a sign of things to come or the eye of
the storm, it’s a welcome relief for the battered backbone
of the economy. Now the true test will be to find skilled
labor to fill the estimated 2 million manufacturing jobs
expected to open over the next decade.
Unlike past years, which had kid-centric trends steering
our malleable youth to unlikely careers as pop stars or
dancers, 2017 proved to be a big year for brain building.
GE put the spotlight on girls in STEM (like with “Molly, the
Kid Who Never Stops Inventing”) to close the industrial
gender gap. Globally, men are at least three times more
likely to pursue an education in engineering, manufacturing, or construction, according to World Economic
Forum calculations. And to address that general skills
gap, several manufacturers embraced metal-on-metal
carnage via the Giant Robot Duel, in which millions viewed
America’s giant robot Eagle Prime, made by MegaBots,
thrashed formidable Japanese opponent Kuratas.
convErGEncE of 3d PrintinG & robotS
On their own, every month is a good one for these two.
In tandem, these two advanced manufacturing industries
are unstoppable. Siemens is experimenting with one far-off future method: spider-like 3D-printing robots— a total
nightmare if you suffer from techno or arachnophobia. But
the most visible (and awesome) use this year was when a
seven-year-old girl with a 3D-printed robotic hand threw out
the first pitch at a World Series game. If a little girl has no
trouble adopting these technologies, what’s your excuse?
Humanity has been borrowing ideas from nature for
thousands of years, as they should, since many have
been product-tested for millions of years. With an explosion of new technologies around us, from robots to 3D
printers, Festo’s industrial designers have turned again
to the wild, to create soft, flexible grippers based on an
Octopus tentacle and a chameleon tongue.
“We are sure that there are millions of solutions for
unsolved technical problems,” says Elias Knubben, head
of Festo corporate bionics projects. “There are many fas-
cinating principles worth doing research on even if we
don’t have an application in mind already.”
intErnEt of thinGS
As sensors have progressively gotten smaller and
cheaper, it was only a matter of time before the Internet
of Things went from a box to check on your long-term
equipment wishlist to the technology your company
can’t live without. According to Verizon’s “State of the
Market: Internet of Things 2017,” Io T connections in the
manufacturing world grew by 84% from 2016 to 2017.
Furthermore, nearly three-quarters of all executives
are researching or instituting Io T projects. This makes
perfect sense, as every connected machine provides
more data for you and even the device to act upon.
As much as IoT can help your plant or factory by collecting real-time supply chain and asset data, each new
device becomes a potentially vulnerable endpoint at which
a malicious actor can snake its way into your network.
The WannaCry ransomware attack, which used a Windows XP vulnerability to lock around 200,000 systems
around the world, showed how quickly one of these could
spread. The attack, which shut down production lines at
automakers Renault and Nissan, may have cost billions
in economic losses overall. It would have been worse if
not for a white hat discovering a kill-switch, and should
now serve as a reminder to make cybersecurity a priority
when installing new connected equipment.
So this year may be rememberd as the inflection point
when the world decided it can stop digging for energy
and simply look upward. Morgan Stanley estimates that
renewables overall will be the cheapest new form of energy
generation, and the price of solar panels have dropped
by 50% from last year. Consumers have jumped at the
chance to reserve a Tesla Solar Roof (as low as $21.85/
sq. ft.), which, when connected with a Powerwall, creates
a grid-independent power plant. On a large scale, Tesla
made history in November by activating its 100MW-battery
system comprised of industrial Powerpack units charged
in this instance by an Australian wind farm. Meanwhile,
competitor First Solar recently announced the launch of
a more efficient, much larger solar panel, Series 6, to
meet rapidly increasing demand. It’s true that government
subsidies helped get solar to this point, but from 2010 to
2016 the price of a kilowatt hour dropped from 88 cents
to 10 cents, according to the University of Texas. Revenue
over that time has increased threefold.
Without Artificial Intelligence, we’d still have smart factories; they’d just be kind of dumb. Whatever AI platform
you’re using, from Siri or Alexa at home to IBM’s Watson or
GE’s Predix in the plant, they take all the loose, seemingly
disparate information and data you have and make it into
palatable, actionable analytics, like a butcher does with
sausage. While AI could arguably be on this list every year,
2017 just felt special. Industry wide, there seemed to be
more solutions that assist the plant manager in making
command decisions, or in helping the technician repair
the broken machinery, all without adding new hardware.
IBM reports one manufacturer doubled its output with
Watson, while Nintex Workflow cloud can reportedly boost
mid-tier factories effectiveness by 20%.
Robots, AI, sensors. All of these are useful tools, but
what they end up doing is filling in for human workers,
obviously doing things much faster and more efficiently
in most cases. With industrial exoskeletons and/or
smartglasses, you get the best of both: humans’ mobility and problem-solving and machines’ physical and
cognitive strengths. Exoskeletons finally came into their
own this year with Ekso Bionics and suitX both releasing strength-enhancing wearables to avoid injury. And
smartglasses continued to improve, with Google Glass
making a resurgence for enterprise and startups such as
RealWear launching hands-free, voice-driven headsets.
Paired together or separately, these wearables turn the
worker into the plant’s most efficient, productive asset,
ensuring that job growth continues in 2018 and beyond.
For more information, please visit:
yEAr in rEviEw: Top Manufacturing Trends of 2017
These are the nine greatest developments for manufacturing of the past year.
Ford recently tested out the
EksoVest to alleviate strain
on assemblers’ shoulders.