Manufacturing has long ceased to be the loud, dirty, smelly process that gave us the Industrial Revolution. Today’s factories are quieter, cleaner and more efficient than Henry Ford ever dreamed.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for further innovation in manufacturing. On the contrary, the future of manufacturing looks brighter — and, in some cases, weirder — than ever. Here’s a look at some of the futuristic processes set to shape Minnesota’s manufacturing sector in 2016 and beyond.
Additive Manufacturing & Digital Fabrication Create New Forms
Minnesota is already regarded as a leader in additive manufacturing — popularly known as 3D printing. At this point, it’s possible to 3D print almost anything, from vehicle components to (controversially) firearms. Tantalizingly, functional human organs are on the radar too. But the process remains slow, so high-volume applications and biological products are still years off.
3D printing’s near-term strengths lie in casting, or creating molds that can be used in conventional manufacturing processes, and, when combined with virtual reality interfaces, life-like prototypes.
HouMinn, a Minneapolis- and Houston-based architecture design boutique, uses 3D printing and related techniques to create modular walls and structures that can be customized to fit occupants’ needs. A recent demonstration project in Manhattan’s Bowery district, dubbed “Drift House,” is a temporary homeless shelter that can completely shift forms — expanding, contracting, changing shape, opening to the outdoors — as users require.
HouMinn also 3D-prints molds; according to co-founder Marc Swackhamer, acoustic panel molds reduced the cost of sound dampening for a recent University of Minnesota School of Architecture renovation by a factor of 80.
Meanwhile, greatly improved virtual reality technology offers a look at unbuilt rooms and structures before they’re even prototyped. At the University of Minnesota College of Design’s DigiFab Lab, goggle-wearing architects walk through virtual spaces in search of design flaws; in one case, says college dean Tom Fisher, dormitory designers caught — before any cement had been poured — what would literally have been a million-dollar mistake.
New Ways to Mass-Produce & Customize “Nanomaterials” & Tiny Components
Virtual rooms and shape-shifting buildings are exciting, but there’s a lot of promise at the opposite end of the size spectrum, too.
According to Jim Marti of the University of Minnesota’s Nano Center, a painstaking but improving process known as electron lithography could soon produce commercially available, nano-scale stamps measuring just a few hundred atoms across. Electron lithography uses a focused electron beam to etch patterns in a silicon wafer; it’s typically used to manufacture tiny electronic components, demand for which is always increasing.
Meanwhile, 3M is improving already-impressive coatings and resins that incorporate uniformly spaced “nano-rods” between carbon fiber material. These tiny rods increase strength and wear resistance, opening up a whole new set of applications for formerly unremarkable materials. According to Marti, paints, coatings, resins and other polymers with nano-scale components will become easier to customize in the coming years, revolutionizing industrial processes and the built environment in the process.
Big Data Begets Smarter Manufacturing Processes
"Big data” is a big buzzword in many industries these days. Manufacturing is no exception. According to Marni Hockenberg, principal and executive recruiter at Minnetonka-based Hockenberg Search, Minnesota manufacturers in “process-based” industries — chemicals, pharmaceuticals, mining and discrete (not highly engineered) applications — are already using advanced data gathering and analysis techniques to maximize value at every step of the process.
“There are so many steps involved in [these applications],” she says, “so companies are turning to data for clues about where they’re losing yield, quality or efficiency.”
Advanced data analysis produces more granular insights than the Lean Six Sigma methodology, a “bigger-picture” approach to manufacturing efficiency, says Hockenberg. It’s also predictive, contributing to more accurate demand, production and plant performance forecasts, as well as better evaluation of supplier quality.
Data volumes are set to explode in the next few years, thanks to an exponential increase in the number of cheap, Internet-connected sensors — part of the emerging Internet of Things (IoT) network — in factories and warehouses. The United States alone could have 20 billion connected sensors by 2020, all spitting out real-time data ripe for analysis.
A denser manufacturing IoT network could have big implications for quality and safety, too, says Hockenberg. For instance, sensors at every step of the processing and distribution chain would greatly improve companies’ (and food safety authorities’) ability to trace the source — down to the machine, or perhaps even the animal — of a foodborne illness outbreak.
Medical Devices on Cellular Scales
Nano-manufacturing holds promise for Minnesota’s medical device industry. According to the Nano Center’s James Marti, a team from the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine is working on shrinking electrodes down to the cellular scale. The electrodes’ super-thin wires (called leads), smaller than nerve cell synapses themselves, would be capable of monitoring and stimulating individual cells without interfering with their function.
In the short term, these tiny electrodes will primarily serve an experimental function. Scientists studying honeybees’ recent population collapse already use very small electrodes to monitor honeybees’ cognition over time, and may soon use even smaller devices to study neurological function in mammals.
Nano-electrodes could also greatly improve existing medical treatments, such as St. Paul-based St. Jude Medical’s Infinity deep brain stimulation treatment for Parkinson’s disease. The Infinity system already uses super-thin wires, but further miniaturization would improve accuracy and reduce side effects.
Over the long term, cheap, plentiful nano-electrodes could support “brain-machine interfacing” and “neuroengineering,” says Marti — concepts once relegated to science fiction. The market opportunities here are endless and, for some, unsettling: thought-controlled computers and equipment, machine-aided cognition, enhanced sensory perception and much more.
Building Blocks That Build (or Arrange) Themselves
Marti is excited about an even more futuristic manufacturing application for nanotechnology: self-assembly. In the not-too-distant future — decades, not centuries — many finished products now assembled step by painstaking step may instead use chemically programmed instructions to put themselves together.
First-generation self-assembled products are likely to be specialized paints, industrial coatings, biosafe fillers (such as dental implants), and pharmaceuticals. According to Marti, the first could hit the market within a decade.
These early self-assembled products would combine multiple polymers with special chemical properties “to assemble a precise structure,” possibly with very different properties than the starting ingredients. For instance, pharmaceutical companies might program microscopic honeycomb structures into self-assembled drug capsules to time-release the active ingredients more accurately (and cheaply) than currently possible.
Eventually, says Marti, self-assembly could evolve to the point that “a given set of materials [could] assemble themselves into any material” or product.
“It sounds farfetched,” he adds, “but that’s basically how biology works.” In fact, more distant self-assembly may require a DNA-like coding language to ensure accuracy and support more complex applications.
“There’s no guarantee [self-assembly] will pan out,” Marti cautions, “but the potential is huge.” Self-assembled products could even gain humans a foothold on other worlds: Imagine a small, unmanned payload, sent to Mars or anywhere else, assembling itself in isolation into a multi-room habitat for a future human crew.