When we hear the words advanced manufacturing, a lot of us likely envision robots, software, automation, or engineers with iPads surrounded by holograms and robotic arms… Tony Stark stuff.
With the rate of today’s technological innovation, this presumption is understandable. In many ways, it is correct – advanced manufacturing does encompass the use of these new innovative technologies that can enhance output, operate with superhuman precision or produce impossibly complex products with the click of a button. But limiting our understanding of advanced manufacturing to fancy tech and sophisticated products falls short of what this term really means.
It’s about our knowledge, skills and people…
Advanced Manufacturing is more about the methodologies we employ to manufacture everything and anything. Advanced Manufacturing does not necessarily result in advanced products, it results in advanced ways of making products, be they complex or inherently simple products. It’s about the learnings, skills and constant improvement of processes that result in enhanced output and added value. The way we leverage advanced machinery, software and our own knowledge to lower production times, costs, material usage and environmental impact is what makes our manufacturing processes advanced.
‘Finding smart ways to make dumb things’ is the most simple yet all-encompassing explanation I have relayed when trying to explain the characteristics of advanced manufacturing to others. Just because the product we might be designing is solving a simple problem, doesn’t mean we can’t engage advanced practices to develop and manufacture it. The human expertise and skill in advanced manufacturing is the oft forgotten element central to the concept.
Smart ways to make dumb things
A great example of this, from Black Lab Design’s experience, came in 2020 when we were contacted to urgently develop, manufacture and deploy hand sanitiser dispensing units at scale for a major Australian retailer. The product needed to solve a relatively basic problem; make an automatic sanitiser dispensing unit with the addition of alcohol wipes and a bin. A desirable outcome for the client, however, would actually require some intelligent solutions that could only be delivered with advanced manufacturing methodologies. The sanitiser unit needed to be compact for ease of delivery and install, it needed to be portable to fit a range of store needs, it had to be easily refilled and serviced, it had to have a subtle but visible presence at front of stores, and most of all, it needed to be manufactured at speed. Answering each of these needs called upon considered design thinking and optimisation of manufacturing processes.
Delivering the project didn’t require advanced robotics or specialised machinery, but it demanded clever design, engineering and logistics management. Detailed CAD modelling and 3D digital twin development were used so inspection of prototypes could be made remotely by clients that weren’t able to travel. We added QR codes to units to allow for delivery tracking and digital troubleshooting for the user. Factory machinery and staging was re-formatted and arranged to increase the speed of production and minimise material wastage. Digital printing allowed for rapid branding of the units. Design thinking drove all of these elements that allowed us to make a ‘dumb’ product in a smart way, and we delivered thousands of units across the country in a matter of months.
In recent years, as the term ‘advanced manufacturing’ has found its way into the vocabulary of policy makers I have noticed a misrepresentation of the critical elements that make manufacturing ‘advanced’. This was reflected by Jesse Adams Stein writing for @AuManufacturing in the piece titled Advanced Manufacturing’ should be about people, skills and the environment, not fancy new tech.
In announcing funding for Australia’s manufacturing sector, the government initiative known as Global Australia points to the billions of dollars it’s allocating to boosting our advanced manufacturing capabilities. On the website it boasts the money is “providing high-value customised solutions” so that manufacturers can “climb the technological ladder”, and hits the buzzwords of FinTech, AI and robotics. There is a distinct and troubling focus on export value and investment in new technologies with little consideration for the investment into the people that make it happen and the skills that need to be learnt to conduct truly advanced manufacturing.
Stein puts it perfectly in writing “a renewed emphasis on skills development in practical trades could combine both ‘traditional’ and emerging techniques and technologies”. This is what drives our economic complexity and capacity to make the things we use every day. The products of tomorrow will still require deep understanding of materials and how to handle them. Progress will be driven by our ability to value-add at home without overwhelming reliance on offshore supply and advanced manufacturing methodologies in design, problem solving and logistics are just as important as the technology that supports it.