Evolving tech driving greater productivity, competition

Evolving technology is driving greater productivity and competition for manufacturers, according to a panel of industry experts.

“That’s what we’re facing every single day — change so fast not any of us can keep up with it all by ourselves,” said Buckley Brinkman, executive director and CEO for the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity.

He spoke at a recent Innovation Network event in Madison, held by the Wisconsin Technology Council. Panelists discussed the changing landscape of manufacturing, touching on some of the most impactful innovations they’re seeing.

Brinkman pointed to the Local Motors Rally Fighter Vehicle, a car constructed completely from 3D-printed components.

“They’ve gone from 50,000 parts in a normal car to 50… taking a five- to seven-year development window down to five months,” he said.

And these vehicles are being built in 70,000 square-foot factories — smaller than the average Kohl’s store, Brinkman says, and a big improvement from other car manufacturers which need more space.

“We can affect automotive manufacturing this way — think about how it can affect the rest of industry,” Brinkman said.

David Vasko, global product manager for Rockwell Automation, says the rise of data availability has led to a “much more competitive environment.”

He says manufacturers all know the cost of making goods in any country that would be relevant to them, and can make better decisions based on that broader understanding.

“That data has never been available before…. That causes much more competitiveness among manufacturers and manufacturing locations,” Vasko said.

He noted other innovations touching the industry including cloud technologies, augmented reality, improved analytics, artificial intelligence and collaborative robots — machines designed to physically interact with humans in a shared space.

“Those are helping us make the connections that will help us be productive in the future,” he said.

Automation and robotics are also becoming much more accessible for smaller manufacturers. As Brinkman notes, a robotics system that used to cost upwards of $500,000 now goes for around $35,000.

“You’re seeing that as costs continue to climb, and capabilities continue to accelerate, this is going to play a huge role in how we manufacture things moving forward,” he added.

Manufacturers are also facing totally new risks, as the internet provides new avenues for outside actors to gain access and steal valuable information.

“In the old days, cybersecurity wasn’t a problem,” Vasko said. “You just put guards around the outside of the factory, and it wasn’t a big issue… [Now] it is very much an issue.”

–By Alex Moe