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Thriving in the age of trillions

Sept. 30, 2015
Mother Nature has lessons to share as manufacturing undergoes a fundamental shift
About the author
Dave Perkon is technical editor for Control Design. He has worked with a wide variety of fortune 500 companies in the medical, semiconductor, automotive, defense and solar industries.

"Another information age is upon us," believes Mickey McManus, chairman and principal, MAYA Design. In this new information age, when not millions or billions but trillions of devices will be connected and communicating, the very nature of things will change, presenting both enormous challenges and opportunities to industrial companies, McManus said in his Minds + Machines keynote address this week in San Francisco.

The continuing proliferation of microprocessors with embedded network capabilities will mean that we increasingly inhabit "a primordial stew of connectivity," McManus said. "It's already the landscape we're living in." In 2010, for example, ten billion microprocessors were manufactured; we made more transistors than we grew grains of rice, and we made them cheaper, McManus said. "Effectively, we will be saturated with information," McManus predicted, "and we will have to think differently about what we do."

Lessons from nature

"These are incredibly resilient ecosystems that rely on mutualism, not parasitism. It's beautiful complexity." MAYA Design's Micky McManus turned to nature for examples of the complex, dynamic and interdependent systems that will characterize the manufacturing companies of tomorrow.

With a trillion devices, the amount of information will be staggering, as will the complexity. "And the scale of the opportunity will be much bigger than we can imagine," McManus said. To cope, we'll have to develop methodologies that more closely resemble Mother Nature's, McManus said, citing thehuman body's effective coordination of 50 trillion individual cells, or a 75,000-year-old stand of aspen trees that acts as a single organism. "These are incredibly resilient ecosystems that rely on mutualism, not parasitism. It's beautiful complexity."

Within industry, this pervasive connectivity is colliding with other digital manufacturing megatrends such as three-dimensional (3D) and even "4D" printing. "Not only can you print objects, you can embed behaviors into them," said McManus, citing a printed carbon fiber part that bends when an electric current is applied. "It opens up applications where not only is the object sensing, it is adapting," McManus said. "We'll actually be building networked matter."

3D printing isn't just for prototyping anymore, and will fundamentally transform how manufacturing gets done, McManus contends. Invisalign, for example, made three million retainers last year, and each one was printed. "That's the factory of the future you should think about," he said. "Other factories won't go away, but tying the factory, dentist and patient together digitally gets unique items built." In another example, he noted that 13,000 finished Barbie dolls can fit in a shipping container, but that same container can hold 250,000 Barbie dolls' worth of raw polymer. "The benefits of printing things at the edge will have a profound impact on supply chains. The future of making things is changing."

"The 20th century was about setting up static equilibrium," McManus concluded. "You built your factories, designed your products, and hoped things didn't change." Today, industrial companies must strive to maintain a dynamic equilibrium, he said. Building smart machines that continuously sense, learn and adapt may seem a difficult task, but remaining relevant and competitive in the 21st century will require it.

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