Aug 28 2014

Could Drones Play a Role in Manufacturing?

drone_in_manufacturingIn my last post, I offered an update on how serious Amazon is with getting FAA approval for the use of drones as a delivery option. For this post, I will expand upon this topic to explore if other opportunities might exist for manufacturers.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) suggests that one of the most promising industries for drone use is agriculture. Drone use could include the creation of aerial maps to optimize water and fertilizer distribution, fertilizer application and delivery of spare parts to farmers for equipment emergencies. According to this Farmweek, in this video, 40% of Japan’s rice fields are already being crop dusted with drones. So, in effect, drones have already become a part of a food and beverage manufacturer’s supply chain.

Professor D. Ken Giles concurs. As a member of the department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the University of California, Davis, professor Giles explains in this video the benefits of using drones to address agriculture management tasks.


Quoting from issue #5 – 2014 of Dassault Systèmes’ Compass Magazine, in the article Disruptive Drones, “The first unmanned, remote-controlled helicopter for crop dusting was invested in 1987 by Yamaha Motor Company of Iwata, Japan. Today, approximately 2,400 Yamaha RMAX helicopters spray Japanese rice fields with pesticides or are used for planting, managing weeds and fertilizing.” Clearly, these RMAX units are effectively drones, and are already performing important agriculture management tasks.

Continuing from the article, both Google and Facebook have invested in drone technology to progress their mutual goal to enable Internet connectivity in underserved areas. In March 2014, Facebook acquired UK drone manufacturer Ascenta, whose aerospace engineers joined Facebook’s Connectivity Lab to focus on connectivity aircraft. A month later, Google acquired Titan Aerospace, a US startup founded in 2012 that makes high-altitude, solar-powered drones. Manufacturers could follow similar strategies as ways to connect remote warehouses or plant locations in areas where Internet access is limited. Time will tell.

An Indoor Drone

Drones are not limited to outdoor use. Qimarox, a material-handling company based in the Netherlands, is studying the use of drones for picking goods off shelves and assembling them into pallet loads – inside a warehouse. The company envisions manufacturers of consumer products using drones to design a compact, flexible and scalable palletizing process.

“Because of capacity and ergonomic limitations, using people to stack goods on pallets is no longer an option for most manufacturers of fast-moving consumer goods,” said Jaco Hooijer, Qimarox’s operational manager. “Using drones, they can fully automate the palletizing process while retaining the much greater level of flexibility and scalability entailed when using people.”

Until safety regulations are in place, commercial applications of drones are all but grounded in the US. Meanwhile, the FAA is setting up six drone research and test sites from Alaska to Virginia, the first of which should now be operational.

“Initially, we see the commercial use of drones limited to visual line-of-sight in daytime operations only, so they can be landed quickly in case of emergency,” said Ben Gielow of AUVSI. “Amazon’s parcel delivery concept not only requires a drone that operates autonomously via GPS, but one with the proper sensing technology to avoid collision with another drone or other aircraft, and that is all still very much in the research stage.”

This constraint sounds similar to what manufactures must consider when automating picking processes within their warehouses – a task that can be effectively planned and optimized for.

In conclusion, it isn’t likely we’ll see any drones in 2014 becoming an integral part of the production process or value chain, other than their current role within the Food & Beverage industry. However, with the incredible technology breakthroughs and the focus of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see some interesting developments in the years to come.


Gordon can be found on Google+ .

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Aug 26 2014

Keeping up with the Connections: Uptime and the Network Architecture

network_uptime_comes_down_to_wire_in_manufacturingIn manufacturing, downtime is to be avoided—at all costs. In some industries, like life sciences, the failure to produce product for even 10 minutes can mean losing millions of dollars per batch. As a result, companies immediately look to IT applications, automation technologies, and operational processes to ensure there will be no glitch on the production line. That’s why we see manufacturers in every industry investing in asset management software, manufacturing execution systems, virus protection software, predictive analytics, quality control, backup plans, and people who have the right skill set to keep operations humming.

All of these things are needed—required, even. But the industry may be missing a critical component in the uptime puzzle. The network.

Ethernet has made its way onto the factory floor, displacing the proprietary networks of the past that were closed and somewhat protected. Today, Ethernet is faster than the Token Ring infrastructure manufacturers swore by in the 1980s and 90s. In fact, Ethernet / IP, the combination of traditional Ethernet TCP / IP and the Control and Information Protocol (CIP), is a highly reliable communication protocol for transferring data between devices. Ethernet/IP is not the problem. The real culprit of costly downtime may have more to do with the physical infrastructure that keeps the data flowing.

According to industry experts, the majority of network failures are result of a loss of network connectivity.

Protecting the wired and wireless connections between machines is just as important as protecting the data that flows over the communication infrastructure. Media, in its basic form, matters.

There are many ways a network connection could be disrupted or cut. Consider things such as mechanical, ingress, chemical and electromagnetic conditions (MICE)—that is, vibration, dust, water, electrical shorts, climate, or in some rare cases even critters. According to a Network World article, Google is now wrapping its underwater fiber cables in Kevlar-like material to protect the submerged wires from shark attacks. Here’s the video of a shark with a taste for cable:

While that is not a typical scenario for manufacturers, the shark footage serves as evidence that stuff happens. That means companies must design a network from the ground-up keeping mission critical production lines in mind as well as environmental factors.  Resiliency must be built into everything – within the infrastructure design.

To that end, here are three factors to consider:

  1. Think about copper wire vs. fiber. For the enterprise LAN, copper or CAT 5e/6, is just fine. But when it comes to the factory floor, fiber cables can run longer distances and are immune to electrical interference.
  2. Think of the overall layout of the network being the physical topology. Consider if a central server will be attached directly to every workstation in a star configuration, for example, or perhaps everything should be connected to the main cable. Every last detail, down to the protective covering on the cable (do you need Kevlar?) is part of the planning.
  3. Consider how the wired and wireless architectures will interplay to create a cohesive data exchange experience.

Many companies have embraced a mobile / tablet strategy that effectively leverages the wired/wireless factory floor network. For example, here is a link to a video showing how Alstom Transport has embraced a manufacturing mobility strategy for each of its shop floor workers.

Bringing in an expert team to design and deploy the network is a valuable investment. Remember, the network will be around for decades, so you don’t want to have to rip and replace it anytime soon. Do it right the first time to avoid costly down time.


Stephanie can be found on Google+.

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Aug 20 2014

Will Drones be in your Future Value Chain?

You likely saw the announcement last December about Amazon wanting to deploy drones to deliver packages. While this would likely be a premium delivery option, dubbed “Prime Air,” this service would get customers their products in just 30 minutes after clicking the “buy” button. Here is a whole new spin to leveraging a “cloud-based” technology from a mobile app! According to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, his “optimistic” estimate is that Prime Air will be available to customers within 4 to 5 years.

For those of you who haven’t yet seen this video, it is worth spending a minute to watch. It shows how drones could be used to deliver packages from an Amazon warehouse to the end user:


Just in case you were thinking that this is still science fiction … I wouldn’t be too quick to bet against Bezos. According to a recent article from last week, Amazon purchased the Washington Post, they have retained the powerful lobbying firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and the continue to poach influential new hires in the D.C. area, most recently Cisco aide Steve Hartell. Steve will direct Amazon’s congressional relations – specifically with regards to FAA policy. Clearly, this is a company that is ready to invest the money necessary to make their vision come true.

According to issue #5 – 2014 of Dassault Systèmes’ Compass Magazine, in the article Disruptive Drones, “The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was the first bill that included language requiring the FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft with manned aircraft into the national airspace system,” said Ben Gielow, General Council and Senior Government Relations Manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems international (AUVSI) in Arlington, Virginia.

In 2013, AUVSI projected that the expansion of commercial drone technology could create more than 100,000 US jobs by 2025, with an overall nationwide economic impact of more than $82B in the first decade of operation. These are pretty big numbers, so it would appear there might be a few possible uses for this technology to drive such a significant economic impact.

Until the FAA issues guidelines, however, drone enthusiasts will have to keep their enthusiasm in check. Today, the commercial use of drones without proper authorization is illegal.

The FAA recently halted a Minnesota brewery from testing a drone to deliver beer to ice fisherman. (What a great idea!) Inspired by Amazon’s drone project, Lakemaid Beer posted an online video showing a 12-pack of beer taking flight under a six-propeller drone. Lakemaid’s President, Jack Supple, said he doesn’t plan to give up hope on his brewery’s idea, and plans to be ready when the FAA gives the approval.

This video is also worth the minute to watch it – under this scenario I might just be tempted to try ice fishing myself!


So, if there is forecast to be a significant economic upside from commercializing this technology, where might that lift come from? I’ll continue this discussion in my next post.

Anyone for ice fishing?


Gordon can be found on Google+ .

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Aug 19 2014

Supply Chain Brief to Feature MT Blog

supply_chain_briefOne of the topics discussed on Manufacturing Transformation is the education and research that must be done to stay current with manufacturing trends. Topics requiring update might come from technology innovation, manufacturing trends, or industry consolidation, just to name a few.

Hopefully some of the concepts presented on Manufacturing Transformation can help in this regard.

We would now like to introduce you to another great resource for keeping up on today’s manufacturing and supply chain news: Supply Chain Brief.

Launched as a combined effort between The Logistics and Supply Chain Management Society and The Logistics of Logistics, Supply Chain Brief is a new site that was just launched to bring together content from the “best bloggers and thought-leaders in supply chain management, operations, logistics, and warehousing.”

Supply Chain Brief is an “aggregator” or “hub” site, so it allows you to search for articles tailored to the specific topics you seek. This way you can easily find stories that actually matter to you, and stay informed, so you’re in the best position to help your business continue to succeed.

Manufacturing Transformation is pleased to have been selected as a contributing source for this news site, with content related to the transformation impacting global manufacturing.

You can access Supply Chain Brief by clicking on the widget / icon in the right margin – choose a topic to refine your search.

Manufacturing Transformation hopes you find this hub site to be a useful resource!


Gordon can be found on Google+ .

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Aug 13 2014

When Virtual Manufacturing Becomes Reality

digital_manufacturing_space_systemsIf you have any interest in the digitization and automation of manufacturing, you’ll be interested in an interview with a Lockheed Martin executive that I came across recently in the Manufacturing Leadership Journal.

The executive is Dennis Little, VP of production at Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems Division. Little is driving a project within the company called Digital Tapestry. It aims to combine the three key digital domains—virtual reality development environments, 3D printing, and digital processes—to, in the article’s words, “radically streamline its entire approach to creating complex products” from end-to-end.

There are two things to note in that last statement. First, Lockheed Martin Space Systems knows something about complex products—they’re in the business of producing missiles, orbital and exploration satellites, and manned space vehicles. Second, they really mean “end-to-end” digital operations.

The concept goes far beyond the typical digital development environments. What they’re aiming for is nothing less than a fully digital product lifecycle. Here’s how Little describes the project:

“The Digital Tapestry ties everything in our production operations together digitally, from concept to product realization. It’s an end-to-end digital ap­proach where everything is connected—from concept, design, simulation, manufacturing and assembly, to testing and getting the final product to the customer. Our goal is not to break a single thread in the digital process.”

One of their tools seems straight out of the Star Trek holodeck. Officially called the Collaborative Human Immersion Lab, but affectionately known as the Cave, it’s a physical room with special projectors where engineers, suppliers, customers—anyone in the Digital Tapestry—can wear virtual reality goggles and gloves that enable them to see, touch, and manipulate anything from a product part to a satellite as if it’s right there in front of them. (Note that Dassault Systèmes also has such a room, but ours is more for demonstrating the capabilities of our software.) Lockheed Martin’s Cave is tied to assembly and test operation bays, so it can link to manufacturing and vice versa. In other words, an actual working virtual room!

Clearly, Little is thinking big.

Most companies won’t go that far, at least not yet. But most manufacturers could benefit from an end-to-end digital production system of some kind. Such a system enables individuals from different disciplines to communicate with everyone else throughout the product lifecycle—and that transforms product development from a linear process into a collaborative one. “A technician can help a design engineer design their product to improve produceability, manufacturability, and testability,” says Little. “It’s also how we can reduce cost. We can hit the affordability piece head on by trying out new approaches.”

And of course, 3D printing can bring digitization to the actual production process. As Little says, “We can go from the simulation to producing a plastic part within hours, give it to the design engineer and the manufacturing engineer, get feedback, and plow that back upstream in the Digital Tapestry for the final manufacturing process.” Lockheed Martin already does more with 3D printing than just prototypes—they use it to create special tools and even some working aircraft parts.

Ultimately, Little believes the entire product lifecycle, from conception to retirement, will be digital and collaborative. There are hurdles to clear, however, before their fully digital process actually becomes reality. For example, there are significant investments to make in new technologies, and a new kind of skilled workforce will be needed. Still, Little believes the evolution to digital is inevitable.

“In the future,” he says, “everything in manufacturing needs to be digital.” I concur.

You can read the full interview here.

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