Posts Tagged manufacturing

Australia’s future workforce? Robert Hickson Jun 29

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Australia’s Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) has released a door-stopper of a report called Australia’s future workforce?

It explores a range of themes and issues associated with changing workforces, with chapters from academics (largely), industry representatives, and policy people. CEDA is a respected non-profit organisation for economic and social issues; the equivalent of the Conference Board of Canada. The report considers global and national trends in relation to the Australian labour market.

The chapter on “The impact of computerization and automation on future employment” applies Frey & Osborne’s approach to modelling the affects of automation on the workforce (see my previous post on that), and concludes that 40% of Australia’s current jobs have a “high probability” of being automated in the next 10 to 15 years (compared with 50% in the US). These are largely manual, administrative and sales jobs.

They then attempt to model that at regional levels. Not surprisingly many mining-related jobs seem highly likely to become automated. But they also look at jobs in local government. Time will tell whether they are right or wrong in their models and predictions, but it is a useful exercise in taking the abstract to the more particular to raise awareness of emerging issues.

What about New Zealand’s future workforce? There hasn’t been much sophisticated analysis here yet. Such an approach as CEDA’s report would be useful for New Zealand as well.

It’s not just the type of jobs that people should be looking at. Another recent report from the international consultancy firm Arup, called Rethinking the factory, is one of a range of similar reports noting that new technologies are not just replacing or changing the human workforce in the manufacturing sector, but are changing how factories are being constructed an operated.

The lithium battery manufacturer 24M is being heralded as an example of this, where the effort is going into improving manufacturing processes, not just the products. So are others such as AtFAB, which sends customers the files for its designs, who can then make them themselves or go to a local maker shop. So far AtFAB only makes furniture out of plywood, so there’s a way to go before more high-end products can be made in this way for larger segments of the population.

In New Zealand (as elsewhere), there’s hope for start-ups to diversify the manufacturing sector. However, it is usually a long hard (and often unsuccessful) road from start-up to major global exporter. New Zealand already has a relatively strong manufacturing sector, although a big chunk of this is made up of food companies (where profit margins are low).

Such apparently mundane items as bearings are getting the sexy smart make-over. Manufacturers are blurring the boundary between product suppliers and service companies. Can more New Zealand firms succeed in this new arena?

“What’s next?” from General Electric Robert Hickson Sep 02

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General Electric links back 50 years to an article by Isaac Asimov to promote the technologies its betting on for the future.

Writing after a visit to the 1964 “World’s Fair” Asimov speculated in the New York Times, what technologies would be around in 2014. [World Fairs didn't survive that long, but Expo's have taken their place - Milan is hosting one next year]. You can read Asimov’s piece and note both things that he predicted fairly well (such as mini computers powering robot brains, autonomous vehicles, internet-like communication) and things he didn’t (underground cities with artificially lit vegetable gardens, levitating vehicles, experimental fusion reactors, moon colonies)

Serendipitously,  Arthur C. Clarke was also visiting the World’s Fair and making predictions in 1964.

But back to GE. They have created “What’s next?” and  #nextlist to generate discussion (and good PR, presumably) about future technologies

GE nextlist



Their List has six technology areas that they have an interest in:

Extreme Machines:
Technologies will perform in any situation and any place, no matter how severe.

Super Materials:
What used to be heavy will be the lightest and strongest it’s ever been.

Industrial Internet:
Machines will help us make smarter decisions by talking with us and each other. We will be able to plan downtime, redirect resources and make entire industries from healthcare to power generation more efficient.

Mapped Minds:
We will see and understand the brain better than ever. As a result, severe neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s will become manageable.

Brilliant Factories:
The next industrial revolution will bring unseen level of productivity. With the cloud’s help, we will 3D-print any part, anytime, anywhere.

Energy Everywhere:
New forms of reliable power will reach places far off the grid.

No surprises there for future watchers – better, faster, stronger, lighter, connected.

The “mapped minds” item acknowledges their involvement in medical imaging. The term “brilliant factories” relates to having a “feedback loop from design to product engineering to manufacturing engineering to manufacturing and supply chain operation to services and back” so development and production occur more quickly, and smoothly.

In a companion paper on “The future or work” [Pdf] GE also discuss what they call brilliant machines, which  are “predictive, reactive and social”. They note, in passing, that some human jobs will go, but that they say just provides opportunities to shift to more creative and fulfilling jobs.

All is ultimately good:

it will reshuffle the competitive landscape for both companies and countries, and it will fundamentally change—for the better—the way we work and the way we live.

That’s a bit too glib, but of course they wouldn’t be saying otherwise. Its mostly about technology push, as you’d expect from a manufacturer. But as Asimov’s article 50 years ago shows, not everything will happen how or when you expect it to.

Meanwhile over at MIT’s media lab they are attempting to teach ethics to engineers via science fiction. That’s a start, but it would be useful to involve real ethicists and other humanities professors in their courses (if they don’t already) so the students get a proper academic grounding. Would an arts department put Arthur C. Clarke & Isaac Asimov on their reading lists to teach students about space ship design principles?


Hold your 3D printed horses Robert Hickson Dec 09

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Why would I go to a supermarket to print a cheap plastic imitation of myself, or a loved one? (When) will I be able to just cut out the middle grocer, and most of the supply chain and print my own real bananas at home?

I’ve previously noted  that 3D printing may not be the great disruptor that some claim. Booz & Co, using a more robust framework, take a similar view. They point out that you need to look beyond just the falling costs of 3D printers for home use. Economies of scale mean that large companies will pay less than small firms and hobbyists for the raw materials used by such printers (be those materials plastics, metals, or anything else).  So, except for serious DIY types, many in the future will probably still get their widgets from the big boys.

Printing food too, despite hype from companies like Natural Machines, will also face similar cost challenges.

The report from Booz & Co suggests that the impact trajectory of 3D printing will be more like gas ovens than microchips. People don’t buy as many ovens (or printers) as computers.

They do note, though, that 3D printing will (and already is in some niche areas) shake up manufacturing considerably.

As Callaghan Innovation has already spotted, there will be good market opportunities for firms to produce powder formulations of metals, such as titanium, that can be used for 3D printing.

There are also opportunities to develop more environmentally friendly replacements for the plastics used in 3D printing

It will also pay not to get too excited that you, or your local hospital, doctor’s surgery, or neighbourhood Warehouse Anatomy shop will be able to print new body parts on demand . Top of the line expertise and hygiene will be required there.

Booz & Co’s paper is good to bear in mind when reading about other “revolutionary” technologies.

Trends in manufacturing Robert Hickson Sep 09


Boeing’s Dreamliner has 6.5 million lines of software code for onboard systems support. It’s a very complicated aircraft.

The new Chevy Volt – a humble little hybrid car – has 10 million lines.

That says a lot about the direction of travel of transportation in particular, and manufacturing more generally.

Simon Arnold noted in his comments to my previous blog post that some of the large R&D manufacturing initiatives in NZ are focused on the here and now problems of firms, rather than developing capabilities for future needs. Some will dispute that point – I know Scion has done a lot to try and alert the forestry sector to opportunities in bioproduct manufacturing.

What is a possible future for manufacturing? The McKinsey Global Institute looked at just this topic last year.

They note that manufacturing, like many other sectors, is going through considerable change.  Technology, supply factors, demand and policy are all influencing manufacturing, creating greater risks and uncertainties.

New materials, robotics, additive manufacturing techniques (such as 3D printing), the rapidly increasing use of sensors (as part of the product as well as in the processing and distribution chains), and the ability to design and model performance virtually are opening up new opportunities for manufactured products and processes.

“Green manufacturing” ,where the whole lifecycle of the product and its production is considered, is being taken seriously by leading firms. This is driven partly by consumer demand, but also by the desire to improve resource use by firms, so that they save money. As with “food miles”, there is likely to be a growing interest in properly valuing the costs of raw materials in manufactured products.

Some are even suggesting we are moving into a glucose-based manufacturing economy.

As products become increasingly sophisticated so the supply chains become more complex, and harder to manage. Firms are starting to design manufacturing processes and supply chains that are more resilient – both to natural disasters as well as failures of suppliers. Agile operations that are able to quickly respond, and prepare for, changes will be more successful.

Volatile energy and raw material markets influence company strategies. Government policies (or lack there of, or their inconsistency) can also add to the uncertainty of the operating environment.

Demand for major manufactured commodities may increase by 30 – 80% as the global population continues to grow. This will open up of new opportunities in the emerging markets. Within and between markets there are also growing demands for greater customization of products to meet local needs. More sophisticated and customized products are leading to greater demand by customers seeking services (training, software support, etc) from manufacturers, not just products.

And, there is intense competition for highly skilled workers in the manufacturing sectors. Capital markets may also become tougher.

The McKinsey report states that its a whole new manufacturing world and that:

“manufacturing companies need to develop new muscles”


To be a global manufacturing company means that greater collaboration internationally will be required, and that firms need to develop a much better understanding of their different markets so they can tailor their products and supply chains accordingly. McKinsey point out that China isn’t a single market, but at least 22 different markets.

The profiles of some of NZ’s existing “High Tech” manufacturing firms are available in MBIE’s recent sector report [Pdf].

If NZ want’s to remain a viable niche player in the global manufacturing scene then firms (and government) need to think hard about the changing manufactured world, and how we can develop and attract the skilled people who will be needed. Universities and CRIs can and should help local firms meet their immediate needs, but they also need to help those firms see further ahead and support them in developing the capabilities they are going to require.

If factories in a box become common, what will be the valuable niches where NZ firms can thrive in? As Simon pointed out in response to my previous post, we need to be producing high value “weightless” products and services because we are a long way from the key markets.

One opportunity I see is in extending the sophisticated computational modelling skills developed by the Auckland’s Bioengineering Institute into the manufacturing sector to help design and prototype sophisticated manufactured products, as well as to design resilient supply chains and life cycle analyses.


Think before you 3D print Robert Hickson Mar 24


Oh, the wondrous things coming off printers these days – houses, bone, and gun parts . See more examples at Mashable. Some gush about 3D printing following the personal computer trajectory

However, Wired has an article on the future of 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing) that is less bullish about it being the future of manufacturing. While exhibiting plenty of growth potential, the report endorses an earlier Deloitte analysis that concludes that while many people will soon be able to buy their own 3D printer, they won’t be setting up their own manufacturing company. This is largely due to the costs or access to materials to replace many household objects, and the inability to scale up production. As with current home printers, the costs of the consumables rather than the printer will be the limiting factor.

Many large corporations, such as Boeing, are already using the technology to produce prototypes, which are then manufactured by more conventional means. And new services are likely to pop up so you can go and get a replacement part at your local garage or home maintenance store. Remember when you could buy a new element for your kettle rather than having to buy a new kettle? Maybe those days will be coming back.

As an article in Slate noted  one of the longer term benefits of cheap 3D printing may be to help inspire school students to think about industrial design. However, such classes will need to have a stronger theoretical and intellectual underpinning than the woodwork and metal work classes I took at school to have a more revolutionary effect. Taking home crude plastic rabbit sculptures and other doodads to show mum & dad won’t cut it.

Due to costs 3D printing probably won’t have the same influence or reach as Meccano, which reputably inspired several generations of physical scientists and engineers. But it, along with other aspects of “maker” and “hacker” culture are likely to influence how the current and next generation think about manipulating the physical world and designing futures.

A somewhat tongue-in-cheek view of future developments in 3D printing to keep an eye out for is also available on the Wired website.


Print the future Robert Hickson Feb 16


Is 3D printing — where objects are built layer by layer (with plastics, or in some cases other materials) via something akin to an ink jet printer — ‘the future’ of manufacturing, or will it largely be the realm of hobbyists churning out useful and kitschy playthings?

At Technology Review Christopher Mims argues that the latter is more likely, although he acknowledges that 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing) will have a place in rapid prototyping within existing firms. 3D printing had a large presence at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, with falling costs of hardware and rising numbers of ‘apps’ signalling declining barriers to designing and making your own widgets. Have a look at Thingiverse to see what DIYer’s are already printing.

Tim Maly challenges Christopher’s perspective. While agreeing that current designs and materials are on the whole fairly crappy, he takes a longer view of how this type of manufacturing will play out. Both agree there is plenty of hype at the moment.

Aircraft parts and other industrial components though are being printed and used, as are some body parts. Print your own food and clothes too. You may also want to look at how AUT’s Centre for Rapid Product Development is exploring the potential for additive manufacturing.

3D printing is already entering the classrooms of some secondary schools elsewhere. There are also school competitions for 3D designs. What with robot competitions, PCR machines, and iPads in schools these days, there’s a lot more to stimulate and entice and engage future scientists and engineers.

One analysis suggests that 3D printing may find its niche in the non-mass production zone; producing items in the 10 to 10,000 unit range.

Critical factors for future wider adoption of 3D printing include faster printing, scaling up production, better design tools,  the development of new materials (so high performance objects can be made) and developing standards for these materials. There is also concern brewing over intellectual property issues. Particularly, how IP law may be applied as 3D printing becomes more widely known and tries to maintain an open source ethos. If your future cell phone includes a good 3D scanner will it be OK to scan any object you come across and then go home and recreate it? How about downloading someone else’s design?

On a broader level, it is important to view 3D printing as part of the future manufacturing environment, not as the new environment. A UK Foresight report on Technology and Innovation Futures in the in 2020‘s [PDF, 0.8 MB] notes the rise of manufacturing on demand, helped in part by 3D printing. This report highlights the necessity to consider manufacturing as the provision of services as well as products. Some companies already do this (in the aeronautical sector, for example). In the future, more value may come from the service side of the manufacturing business.

The New Zealand government is keen to boost high value manufacturing. MSI’s Request for Proposals for High Value Manufacturing and Services is out. However, they are looking to invest only around $26 million a year. And this could be spread across a whole range of areas, including geothermal engineering, agricultural technologies, digital content tools, and medical devices. So a relatively small amount of the research money, even if you add in industry co-funding. How well prepared and supported will our manufacturing sector be as other economies put ever greater emphasis on new manufacturing initiatives?

Where’s my Robot? [Part 1] Robert Hickson Sep 14


Robots have been a promise and a fear for the last century. Up till now robots have been used for what have been called the 3 D’s — Dull, Dirty and Dangerous work. Things like building cars, vacuuming, mining, chopping up carcasses, search & rescue, and joining the armed forces. But there are also robotic footballers, pool sharks, penguins, spiders (yay!) and kung fu fighters. Robots are also starting to drive around town or do experiments (thankfully not yet on us). There may be over 8 million robots already out there.

We haven’t yet got to Rosie the Robot Maid, positronic brains, or Skynet, but we seem to be heading towards at least some of them. Robotic office workers are on the way – oh, here was I thinking some of them had infiltrated our work spaces long ago.

In this blog posting I’m introducing Aridane’s webshot; an overview of the drivers, trends, challenges and opportunities covered by the post:

  • Drivers (influencers of change): demographics (aging populations), technology, defence (warfare), economics (labour costs & productivity)
  • Trends: robots being used for more types of applications and in more complex situations; moving from programmed machines to learning machines
  • Challenges: creating versatile and fully autonomous safe robots, what types of robots will we accept safety, making robots affordable for the middle classes
  • Opportunities: improved productivity and safety, filling workforce gaps

 This post (Part 1) covers the trends, Part 2 looks at some of the challenges.

Current situation

The last few years have seen steady development and deployment or robots in a variety of settings. Industrial robots are making a comeback after two years of slow growth following the global financial crisis. The latest forecast from World Robotics concludes that there will be 1.3 million robots working away in factories by 2014. Current numbers are just over 1 million. Most of the industrial robots are employed in the electronics and automotive sectors, with Asia being where most of them reside. The US is concerned that it is falling behind [PDF, 1.32 MB] in the field of industrial robots.

Robots used in other settings — what World Robotics call ‘service’ robots — are also increasing. These are predominantly military (6,000 sold last year) and surprisingly (to me) milking applications (just over 4,000 sold). The latter are big in Europe, with New Zealand and Australia just starting to get interested in similar machines. Future farmers may need advanced degrees in engineering. More on military robots later.

Service robots for medical and logistical (such as moving freight around) applications each sold about 1,000 units in 2010. The World Robotics report notes only small sales of cleaning bots, but iRobot states that more than 6 million home cleaning robots have been sold. However, World Robotics predicts that over 14 million service robots will be sold over the next 4-5 years.


Drivers for Robotics

Key drivers (or influencers of change) in the field of robotics are ageing populations (leading to fewer human workers and more older people to look after), rising labour costs, reducing combat losses and increasing combat effectiveness, and technological developments (in mechatronics, materials science, sensing technologies, and of course faster cheaper computing power).



World Robotics notes that there are a growing number of more versatile industrial robots — ones able to do several tasks rather than just one. This is being driven by the increasing flexibility of some manufacturing processes, where product lines change quickly and products are personalised for individual customers.

So when will we get a versatile domestic robot, be able to call up ‘Ms Green Robot’ to work in our garden, or get ‘Hire a Botty’ to come over and do some home maintenance?

Not for some time. But just getting robots away from a factory floor or lab is a big achievement. And home and medical care robots don’t seem too far away.

We shouldn’t just be imagining a single house robot either. Robots swarms are likely to become more common in the near future. These can help map environments, as well as undertake surveillance. And with more things getting connected to the internet (see my previous post on the Internet of Things) your future Roomba may be conversing with other small autonomous devices to organise cleaning the home and other tedious tasks.

While the increasing dexterousness of robots and their sensory capabilities are impressive, the more significant trend in robotics is the changing approach to programming. Software is moving away from coding simple stimulus-response actions to more evolutionary behaviours, enabling robots to learn in new environments. Advances in artificial intelligence are likely to result in more sophisticated robot behaviours in the next few years. The August edition of National Geographic provides an overview of some recent advances in making robots more sociable.

There is also a move (as in other areas of ICT) for robotics to adopt an open source software approach to stimulate developments and new applications.

The larger underlying trend is of increasing automation in our lives. Dishwashers, microwave ovens, smart phones, robot vacuum cleaners, robotic genome sequencers, and computer assisted driving (and flying) are all now common. They free us from some activities or help us do others better. In the short to medium term it seems that robots will simply continue this trend. Some consider that a popular future robot could be a self propelling equivalent of a smart phone or tablet computer that acts like a personal assistant.

There will be further blurring of the boundaries between humans and machines as bionic prosthetics become more common. See this video on TED about human exoskeletons.

There are of course fears that robots will take the jobs of humans, but will this be any different from other technologies (think of ATMs, shipping containers, the internet). New types of jobs for humanoids usually emerge.

A transformation will occur when robots start making complex decisions and actions that can’t be pre-programmed. Then perhaps we’ll stop considering them as just devices and start thinking of them as creatures. (Roomba owners can get very attached to them, but it’s not quite the same thing). The goal of the RoboCup is to have a robot team beat humans by 2050. That will be a significant turning point.

Part 2 gives a brief overview of challenges facing robotics, and more on military robots.

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