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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article Type: Editorial From: Assembly Automation, Volume 31, Issue 2
Our theme for this issue is the rather all encompassing “advanced manufacturing processes” and it is interesting to consider both how manufacturing has changed in the last few decades and how it may change in the next.
Trying to think of words or phrases that sum up the recent past, I consider that “flexibility” must be pretty high on the list, coupled perhaps with “reduced product life cycles”, “improved quality” and “easier to use”.
It must be pretty hard being a manufacturer. Any commercial organisation has to make money to cover buildings, equipment, materials and employment costs. Do you try and manufacture a really superb product that provides years of perfect service, but which is probably too expensive for all but the very well off? Or do you aim to sell a great quantity of a low-cost product with the expectation that it will only last a year or so before the customer needs to buy a new one?
For any product, there are a least two factors that determine its quality. The first is the design of the product – how good is it at doing its job and how easy is it to use. The second is the quality of manufacture – both the selection and quality of the basic materials and also the product tolerances in manufacture.
I consider that we now have the technical knowledge to be able to manufacture excellent products. Quality of basic design is more fickle. Whereas, manufacturing is largely a science with the properties of materials determining the end product, design is still something of an art. I am sure we will all have purchased products that were aesthetically pleasing – but totally useless.
One big improvement that I have noticed (here in the UK) in the last decade is the facility for product recycling. We still have a way to go before we are as efficient as the slums of Dharavi on the outskirts of Mumbai; but we are making progress, and I would estimate that about 50 per cent of the materials I use do get recycled. In Dharavi, I understand that closer to 80 per cent of the waste of Mumbai gets recycled and reused and turned into products that are exported around the world.
Recycling is currently a highly labour-intensive activity and as such probably does not make sense economically if all the labour that goes into it was charged at Western minimum wage rates. I suspect that is only the good will of the people that makes it viable at all.
In considering “advanced manufacturing processes”, there are two paths that we can follow to lead us into the future. The first and most obvious is that we will be able to make ever more sophisticated assembly systems that require less and less labour to produce steadily improving products.
Pointing to the other path, recent medical research has concluded that average life expectancy is increasing by a quarter of a year every year, and that reaching the ripe old age of 100 will soon be commonplace; or in other words, more and more labour will become available at the same time that less and less of it will be needed.
Perhaps, the advanced manufacturing systems of tomorrow will be designed to need more human input rather than less?