The world may seem a very different place to what it was a few short months ago. Yet from a manufacturing point of few, many of the trends identified before the coronavirus crisis are just as relevant today as they were before. In this article, John Young, APAC director at EU Automation, analyses some of the latest manufacturing challenges faced by machine shops and what manufacturers should do to improve their processes.
It has already become a cliché to say that the coronavirus pandemic changes everything. Yet if we step back from the present moment, we find that many of the key challenges and trends that will continue to impact manufacturing most in the months and years ahead are the very same things we have been talking about before the current crisis.
The key challenge—or opportunity—is the potential impact of new technologies, particularly those associated with the fourth industrial revolution. The question was if and how these technologies would fundamentally transform machine shops. Will the impact of coronavirus slow the adoption of the technologies of the future, as business uncertainty leads companies to think twice about expensive upgrades? Or will it speed up the revolution that was already underway, as there now appear to be even greater reasons for automating manufacturing processes? The answer, if I could tentatively suggest one, will be a bit of both.
Accelerating the Uptake
We have read regularly in these pages about the marvels of new technologies. Whether we are talking about additive or subtractive manufacturing, or the latest machines combining greater functionality into a single footprint. Five-axis CNC machining, for example, allows machines to work with more complex geometries and produce cuts that would have been inaccessible for an older machine working on three axis.
Machine shop owners must judge if and when to invest in these upgrades. It is arguable that the lure of increased automation will be stronger now than ever before. Machine shops that require less human input because more basic processes are automated had their appeal before. Many machine shops were opting for greater automation when making purchasing decisions, even if it took a year or so to fully integrate.
The early adopters will feel that their course of action has been validated by recent events and they now appear more resilient in the face of contemporary challenges. With a reduced need for direct human involvement in the manufacturing process, they are less vulnerable to the impact of shutdowns or prolonged social distancing measures.
Similarly, digitalisation not only offers gains in efficiency and removes the risk of human error, but also more easily allows for remote monitoring. Factors such as these give many of the technologies associated with the fourth industrial revolution an added bonus right now. We told you so, you might hear their advocates cry.
If the current crisis does precipitate an accelerated uptake of new technologies, then that is to be celebrated. However, those who cannot afford expensive upgrades or systems overhauls need not feel like they are being left behind. It is probably more sensible to talk of evolution rather than revolution and its unfolding will be far from uniform.
Manufacturers therefore need to carefully tread the middle line between enthusiastically accepting the benefits of new technology on the one hand, while on the other knowing that a one-size fits all approach would not be appropriate.
The Inevitability of Obsolescence
Obsolescence is a logical consequence of this technological evolution and managing it is a major challenge for machine shops and manufacturers. Technological obsolescence takes place when a particular technology is rendered less useful by new technologies becoming available. In machining, punched tape technology was made obsolete by the emergence of modern CNC machines.
Product obsolescence is the term we use to refer to a situation where an OEM no longer supplies a part. This is set to become a greater problem in the coming years.
One factor driving this trend is the increased reliance on computers and electronics. Industrial systems are typically built to last for many years. Many electronic components have shorter life spans because development is driven by the needs of a consumer market, not the needs of industry. This is a dilemma that the previous generation of machine shop owners did not have to contend with.
For manufacturers looking to improve their processes, the first thing to understand here is that the word obsolescence has too many unwarranted negative connotations. Say obsolete and people think, useless, redundant or out of date.
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