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Pictures of the Future


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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation

The Future of Manufacturing

“Advanced simulation and autonomous robots will transform manufacturing”

Customization tools ranging from advanced simulation to autonomous robots will allow companies to address the customer more directly than ever before.

How can advanced technology make manufacturing companies more competitive? As pressure builds to provide increasingly customized products, companies will need to invest in simulation, additive manufacturing, autonomous robots, and the data analytics needed to capture and make sense of the information these systems generate.

Today, most parts, products and their associated production processes are born in the virtual world – that is, through simulation. How is simulation itself evolving?

Sastry: Simulation has always been a very important part of conceptualizing designs to see how they look; and the associated tools and level of computation have gotten better and better. In addition, augmented reality and virtual reality have made it possible to conceptualize reality in ways that are far more detailed than in the past. In fact, the idea of integrating AR and VR displays early in the prototyping process is really where simulation is heading.

Another major way in which simulation is evolving is that it is no longer limited to a product’s geometric characteristics. Today, it increasingly includes physics-based functions such as the strength of the materials a product will be made of and the product’s electromechanical interfaces. All of this adds up to saving a lot of prototyping time.

There must be tremendous economic value here, right?

Sastry: That’s right. These technologies are cutting product cycle times. As a result, their economic benefits are very, very substantial. What’s more, the ability to bring a product to market quickly often determines whether it will be successful or not.

Siemens talks a lot about digital twins. How close are we to creating objects in the virtual world that are the twin of their real-world counterparts?

Sastry: Whenever you simulate and visualize something, there is always the question of how close to reality the simulation is. But I believe that we are pretty close to being able to develop designs that integrate a product’s geometric and functional characteristics in a way that is meaningful enough for designers to be able to make accurate decisions. That is particularly true for Siemens, with its NX product.

Visionary S. Shankar Sastry spoke on the future of manufacturing at a March Siemens Corporate Technology event in Princeton, New Jersey.

How is the role of robots in manufacturing changing?

Sastry: The role of robots is changing tremendously. Until now we have used them to do jobs that are too dull, dirty or dangerous for human beings. But today, we are starting to see them as being able to aid or enhance human work with a degree of autonomy. Take factory workers. They may, for instance, need a robot assistant to perform tasks that are too delicate for human hands. So the notion of a robot as a human helper could become a new paradigm.

What will be the role of additive manufacturing in the future?

Sastry: Additive manufacturing – 3D printing – is certainly a technology of the future.  The concerns about it until now have been that it has been applied to materials that are not production grade. But we are seeing the creation of parts made out of composite materials and even metals. And this has grown to the point of producing finished products with this technology.

In what ways is Siemens contributing to the evolution of manufacturing?

Sastry: It is contributing through the fact that it is a major supplier of next-generation infrastructures in areas such as energy and health care. It also contributes through its design tools and through platforms for providing data analytics for production systems based on cyber-physical systems.

In what ways are product development and production likely to change in the near future?

Sastry: In the world of mass production, it is a tremendous gamble whenever a company launches a new product. But we are moving toward the concept of Iot size one. And here, I think customization tools ranging from advanced simulation to autonomous robots will really change the picture and give companies a chance to address the customer pool much more directly than ever before. For instance, you could develop a basic device and several variants of it, each of which could be individualized by customers. I think this would take the guess work out of whether a new product would be marketable.

On the other hand, Steve Jobs taught us that you should not always make exactly the devices that people want. After all, we never knew we would have an itch for iPhones! So I do think that there will always be a need for people who are creative in thinking about what the future might be. But they will have really wonderful and cost-effective tools in the future that will allow them to try out a range of products before launch, rather than just one product.

S. Shankar Sastry is Dean and Roy W. Carlson Professor of Engineering, Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies; Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences, Bioengineering and Mechanical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

Interview conducted by Arthur F. Pease