In the last couple of months,
I’ve spoken to the CEOs of two mid-sized manufacturing companies who have bet
on technology – automation, that is – and won. These are two guys who just
aren’t worried about the cost of touch labor, because it’s a very small
fraction of their total production costs.
I’ve also talked to some people
who are working with amazing new technology from a university laboratory, and
are clearly on the left end of a hockey stock curve. In other words, they’re
going to strike it rich.
Technology obviously works. At
least sometimes. And each year, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) attempts
to pick some technologies worth watching. Here are their top five for 2008, which
they announced last month, along with my comments, which should be taken with
more than a few grains of salt.
Direct Digital Manufacturing.
This is a type of so-called additive fabrication that uses an energy source
such as a laser to sinter or melt plastic or metal powders to manufacture a
part. It has been in use for some time as a means for creating mock-ups or
prototypes, but now it may be ready for actual production, particularly for
short runs or customer parts. I think it’s a winner.
Capacitors, like batteries, store electricity. The difference between the two
is that a capacitor can release a charge all at once, which we see demonstrated
every time we take a photo indoors at night or see a lightening bolt.
Ultracapacitors are merely the next generation of what already exists, but they
are so powerful that they will make a difference in a wide variety of
applications that require short power pulses, including industrial lasers,
medical equipment and even cordless power tools.
Did you read Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller, “Prey?” If so, you already
know all about how miniscule objects can assemble themselves into much larger
structures (including monsters that can chase you). In the real world, IBM is
using self-assembling objects for computer chip production. But I don’t think
this technology will filter very far out of ultra-high-tech processes anytime
Intelligent Device Integration.
We don’t think about it, but we are surrounded by intelligent devices. What if
they could talk to one another? SME sees huge potential in this simple idea as
it applies to manufacturing processes, supply chain management, and even
“understanding customers by gaining additional product usage information.”
There is huge potential. But as someone
who is very familiar with the attempts of information technology experts to
integrate computers, I can promise you
that the integration of intelligent devices is going to take a long, long time.
For starters, there will be endless battles about who gets to define the
Integrated 3-D Simulation and
Modeling on Desktop Super Computers. To repeat myself, whenever
technologists start talking about integration, be skeptical. The idea here is
that simulation and modeling tools could become “global” systems that also
include data about suppliers, production statistics, costs… all available at a
mouse click. Ain’t gonna happen. The ROI isn’t going to be there, even for huge
companies, who are already years behind integrating much less complex systems.