Female Engineer

The future looks bright for advanced manufacturing

By: Damian Hennessey, commercial director, Proto Labs
Published: Tuesday, December 22, 2015 - 10:17 GMT Jump to Comments

Technological innovation is bolstering potential for the industry to thrive, but there are still obstacles to overcome.

UK manufacturing is facing a less than optimistic end to the year, with industry body the EEF cutting its manufacturing forecasts. It now expects a 0.1% fall in 2015, and a growth of just 0.8% next year.

This should not, however, be perceived as a pessimistic end for the industry. Accelerated developments in digital technology offer exciting opportunities to welcome advanced manufacturing practices, in which software and hardware converge for faster production times and rapid prototyping.

Advanced manufacturing, according to the government’s policy paper on the subject, “is a term used to describe production processes that rely on cutting-edge science and technology research. This includes the development of manufacturing techniques for specific new technologies, such as plastic electronics and composites. It also includes generic high-tech processes, such as automation and robotics, which can give a range of products a competitive advantage in terms of cost or environmental impact.”

Rapid speed to market

It is critical for manufacturers today to ensure the necessary speed to market keeps up with the accelerating pace of customer demand. Recent advances in the area of rapid prototyping can provide manufacturers and product developers with the tools required to bring new ideas to market for a chance at competing on a global stage.

Ideas created on a CAD screen can now quickly become reality via automated computerised numerical control (CNC) machining, advanced injection moulding and additive manufacturing techniques. As a result, it’s now possible to produce prototype components within a couple of days of designs being submitted.

In particular, the advent of additive manufacturing – more widely known as 3D printing – has opened up a whole host of previously unavailable opportunities for manufacturers seeking the competitive advantage offered by having their products designed and produced as quickly as possible.

Furthermore, the recent advances and developments in technologies such as additive manufacturing have contributed to the rise of ‘digital manufacturing’ across Europe. This is empowering the digital economy and allowing a whole new generation of ‘makers’ to bring their ideas to market at speeds previously impossible.

Plugging the skills gap

The adoption of advanced manufacturing practices will also play a significant role in addressing the skills gap currently affecting the market. As hardware and software come ever closer together, the manufacturing sector needs to employ the brightest and best in IT talent to help accelerate innovation in this new era. A recent government report revealed, however, that only around a quarter of current engineering and technology graduates will go on to work in manufacturing six months after leaving higher education.

Investing in new skill sets is imperative for the future of manufacturing. It is essential that tomorrow’s workforce – the software developers, programmers, designers, engineers and inventors – see manufacturing as an attractive career prospect where having the right STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) qualifications will allow them to fully capitalise on digital innovations now and in the future.

The government, education system and the manufacturing industry need to work together to improve awareness of the need for STEM skills. By changing the perception of careers in the manufacturing industry they will become a more attractive prospect for the future workforce.

Embracing a digital revolution

While the industry appears to be experiencing a decline towards the end of 2015, there is potential for a strong resurgence as it embraces a digital revolution. New business models are being built around customer demand, production speed and enhanced software programming.

Meeting the demands of this revolution will require highly skilled engineers, developers and designers collaborating to ensure that manufacturing powers forward into the 21st century. Manufacturing has the potential to be a high-tech fusion of software and rapidly produced on-demand parts, and indeed an industry that can significantly contribute to our booming digital economy.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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