From Bits to Atoms
By Brian Mathews, CTO Bright Machines
December 10, 2018
Imagine this: a factory where products are made without any humans inside. Design improvements are deployed to the factory a dozen times a day – not annually – without downtime for retooling. When production machines inevitably break, other machines take over within seconds. Any product issues experienced by customers are traceable back to the factory conditions that created the issue. When demand increases, additional production can be brought on-line at other global factories within minutes. In this factory, the lights are out.
Of course, this isn’t a traditional factory: it’s a modern cloud computing data center. The raw materials being developed, in this case, are digital bits (think weather reports, stock quotes, and Netflix movie recommendations) rather than physical atoms.
We started Bright Machines with a bold idea: what if we could automate our factories to produce physical goods as well as we’ve automated our cloud factories to produce bits? Over a few blog posts I’ll explore this “dark factories for atoms” concept.
Automation Status Quo
Most people think manufacturing has been automated since the 1980’s, around the time we started seeing robots in the news. People wondered, “Will robots replace our assembly line jobs?” Some 40 years later, the reality is a little more nuanced. Let’s look at two aspects of this automated-machines versus manual-humans picture.
First, in a physical goods factory the word “automation” refers to execution-automation: a machine (a robot) doing a repetitive task, like driving a screw into a hole. In the cloud computing world this would be akin to a machine (a web server) delivering a webpage to an end user. And yet software engineers never think about delivering webpages as “automation” – to them such execution-automation is so pervasive and expected that it isn’t even discussed. Instead, in this cloud context the word “automation” refers to system-automation – the automation of creating and configuring execution-automation systems (also known as “infrastructure-as-code”). For example, a cloud engineer automates the tasks of building a web server, configuring its network settings, deploying web server code onto it, and connecting it to a database server. In other words, cloud people think about automating the automation.
Second, in the electronics segment of the manufacturing industry alone there are millions of assembly line workers. While machines do many tasks, it’s not the dystopian scene some fear. Meanwhile, demand for electronics is growing. For decades companies have off-shored manufacturing to low cost labor markets, but that trend is reaching its limits. After all, the planet isn’t making new countries to outsource to. Additionally, as economic opportunities have improved globally, upwards of 15 percent of electronics factory workers will quit their jobs this month as they pursue better options. The issue today isn’t machines taking over jobs but finding people to fill the jobs needed to maintain current production, let alone handle growth as demand for “electrification” increases.
The Solution: Intelligent Software-Defined Manufacturing
At Bright Machines, we are focused on delivering intelligent software-defined manufacturing: using software to automate manufacturing automation and define factory infrastructure as code. The result will be products of higher quality, at lower cost, with more personalization, made closer to home, with much less waste. To do this, we’re integrating our software platform with our flexible hardware to completely reimagine product factories, just as it has been done for cloud factories.