Over the past few years, one of the biggest stories in the world of manufacturing has been the renewed growth of firms based in Canada and the United States. Since the 1980s, popular wisdom dictated that the twin forces of globalization and outsourcing were driving manufacturing overseas, where countries with large labour forces, lower wages, and weaker regulatory frameworks were becoming the new hubs for industrial activity.
But while the language of globalization may still dominate the discourse of manufacturing in its political incarnation, the economic reality is that manufacturing in North America is booming — and it is booming thanks to automation.
Increasing automation is a product of a wide range of factors, but one of the essential features of the current developments (what some have come to call Industry 4.0), is the networking of machines using the Internet. As long as machines existed as discrete units, it was necessary for workers to observe and supervise them, but now that machines can communicate directly with each other, a hitherto unimaginable degree of integration has been made possible.
One of the most significant developments along this front has been in the world of quality control. Coordinate measurement machines (CMMs) have long played a vital role in gathering complex metrological data for comparison with electronic blueprints, but the latestCMM software makes it possible for CMM measurement equipment to use this data to analyse and diagnose issues in the production process. This has meant that one of the most important problem solving roles factory floor workers have traditionally played — finding errors in produced parts and figuring out what caused them — can now be done automatically.
CMMs that use new software like PolyWorks’ Inspector program can use measured point clouds to gather sophisticated dimension data, and can use this data to track progressive degradations in part quality. This data can then by analysed to determine where the errors are being introduced and extrapolate from that where there might be machine issues further upstream in the production process. Because they are part of a networked production process, they can then flag these errors for potential repair.
This is a significant breakthrough for a number of reasons. Not only can manufacturers reduce their reliance on labour, they also have access to a dramatically expanded archive of data related to their production line. This data can be used to solve immediate problems on the shop floor, but it also has the potential to provide long-term solutions for manufacturers who want to harness the power of data to create more sophisticated and efficient production lines.
There is no question that in the 21st century, automation is the single most important axis of success in the manufacturing industry. Firms that are able to harness the power of networked production lines are less reliant on fluctuating, unstable labour markets, and have greater control over the inputs in theirproduction process. While the future of automation is still unfolding (and labour remains an important factor in the manufacturing calculus), developments like those being seen in the world of metrology are changing the face of the global manufacturing industry.