Manufacturing innovation • Software-defined manufacturing • Viewpoints

An Intelligent Platform for Innovation

By Amar Hanspal, CEO, Bright Machines

In the beginning, before we had assembly lines, we had artisans and craftspeople who made individual pieces. An artisan is a true generalist, in the best sense of the word. The expert craftsperson knew everything necessary – from design to manufacturing, and everything in between—to complete an item from start to finish. 

While this system was time-consuming, it was capable of great innovation—think of all the different types of joinery that woodworkers have developed over time. It was focused on the customer, meeting the individual requirements completely. And it was adaptable. A skilled woodworker could build just about anything. If you ordered up a bureau and suddenly needed a table, an artisan could handle that.  Quality and customer service were the hallmark of this age.

The Achilles’ heel of the artisanal system was that it was slow and expensive, catering mainly to the wealthy. The arrival of the industrial revolution coupled with the emergence of a middle class led to a rethinking of manufacturing, emphasizing volume and cost over quality and customer satisfaction.   Factories competed to turn out the same exact replicas of a single product at the lowest price and highest volumes possible. Factories were not flexible or adaptable. Rather than encouraging or allowing innovation, this system discouraged change. Changes were expensive, time-consuming, and inherently risky. 

Rather than take time to educate every worker as a generalist, the second stage of manufacturing turned every worker into a specialist. It took high-skill tasks and broke them down into lower-skill specializations that didn’t require broad training. That managed costs and spread risks over a more comprehensive set of participants.  Even automation, in the forms of robots or other devices, emphasized repetition and predictability. 

It’s an understatement to say the world has changed a bit since then. While customers continue to care about cost and access to products, they are increasingly discerning about service and the ability to get products tailored to their needs.  The rise of direct-to-customer companies in categories ranging from beauty to men’s health to eyewear bears witness customers’ growing desire to have a more intimate connection with companies and buy products tailor-made to their needs.  No surprise, then, that the manufacturing paradigm that set the world on fire 300 years ago might not be the best one for today’s economy, workers, and consumers.

Thanks to software and more intelligent machines, manufacturing is ready for its third stage – one that combines the quality and customer focus of the first era with the second era’s ability to scale. 

Combining the power and efficiency of modern factories with the knowledge and adaptability of software, manufacturing is ready to become a platform for innovation; an industry better able to precisely produce what the customer needs, when they need it, where they need it, with increased resiliency and lower environmental cost.

This new platform for innovation is enabled by advances in computer vision, sensors, machine learning, and cloud computing.  Software-defined manufacturing is making production lines adaptable and more responsive to customer needs and factories more programmable. This type of manufacturing platform connects machines to a software layer that configures, monitors, and manages the system. 

By leveraging cloud computing and sensors to drive a broad range of machines, a software-defined manufacturing platform learns and adapts each process to match changing specifications.

One of the benefits of this software-driven approach is that it simplifies the process by which the rest of the organization interfaces with the world of manufacturing.  Product development teams now have full visibility into whether their products are being smoothly introduced into the production line, and they can see any issues as they arise.

Digital information on the production run also means that customers now have full visibility into progress into their orders.  Indeed, what Dominos can do for pizzas will be what modern manufacturing can do for complex products.

Simplifying manufacturing opens the door to innovation. Until now, anyone with an idea for a new product has faced several barriers to moving from a prototype to a modest production run. From finding a manufacturer willing to work on modest volumes, to finding someone who can help translate their product design into something that can be sourced and made, to debugging issues found during production, manufacturing has been a dark art, understood only by a few. 

With the move to a more digital experience, innovators everywhere will have a more straightforward way to submit their designs for manufacturing, receive feedback, and track progress.

We’ve seen what simplifying the ability to deploy code has done to the world of software. Indeed, the arrival of digitally driven data centers such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure has opened the door to hundreds of thousands of individuals building applications. I’m optimistic that the arrival of a digitally-driven manufacturing experience will do the same for driving innovation in the world of physical products. 

As software-defined manufacturing effectively automates automation, it puts us on the road to enabling anyone to build anything, anywhere.


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