Advanced manufacturing explainer: A key of crucial terms

Thu 28 Sept 2023
Posted by: Danielle Keen
Features

Gone are the days when manufacturing always meant a grimy factory floor and tired hands toiling at a long assembly line.

Technological advances have taken us into an era of advanced manufacturing, which leverages digital developments maybe more familiar in a services context – such as cloud-based computing, artificial intelligence and automation – to enhance manufacturing processes.

The Daily Update heard about these developments from our director of EU public policy Fergus McReynolds, whose 15 years in industry, including as Make UK’s director of EU and international affairs, mean he is perfectly placed to take us through advanced manufacturing’s key terms.

Automation

A cornerstone of technological advancement across services and industry, automation is a driving force behind efficiency gains, absorbing resource from routine labour-intensive activities and decision-making.

McReynolds says it’s the latter point that really distinguishes the latest leap forward in advanced manufacturing:

“Smart manufacturing involves internet-enabled or connected devices in communication with one another, opposed to the sort of standard automation which only replaces set tasks.

“There’s a big progression between having just one process which is automated, through to a series of processes which are automated, in which the technology supporting each step is communicating.

“That's the ‘smart’ element; not necessarily autonomous decisions being made, but certainly this interdependency between different activities.”

Almost a decade ago, McKinsey identified manufacturing as a high potential industry for automation. Since then, there’s been a shift towards automating production lines for the manufacture of machinery and automotive parts.

The ‘smart’ element of that shift is enabling different steps along the production line to feed into one another, enabling a faster, more seamless process.

Nanotechnology

McReynolds defines nanotechnology as “anything manipulated at the nanoscale, either in the design process or by the manufacturer”.

Working at the scale of a nanometre, one billionth of a metre, means getting down to the molecular level, manipulating a material’s atomic structure.

Nanotechnology can be deployed in a range of existing sectors such as aerospace and automotive sectors, where specialised materials are required in order to optimise strength while minimising weight.

Its applications include well-established materials like graphene: artificially structured carbon.

Graphene exemplifies how nanotechnology can produce lightweight materials through its use in clothing and sports equipment. It’s got its fair share of technological applications, too, including for adaptable electrical fibres used in sensors and smart clothing.

Northern Ireland is one notable hub of nanotech expertise, with the Smart Nano NI Consortium distributing over £42m in government research funding to an array of nanotech projects developing everything from sensors to biomedical solutions.

The biggest hurdle to greater rollout of these product is what McReynolds terms “a large regulatory rabbit hole in terms of trying to define products”.

This can prove a particular challenge for traders, given the requirements on them to define origin of parts and to outline materials for customs documentation.

Composite materials

At the other end of the spectrum composite or ‘advanced’ materials are made by “combining the preferential characteristics of different materials to produce a new material”.

A common example used in construction, composite steel, is made of two different steel alloys for an even more powerful mix of properties. The result maximises heat conduction while being immune to corrosion.

McReynolds points to the UK’s semiconductor industry as a “world leader”, with substantial research being done in the space.

In May, the government unveiled a £1bn National Semiconductor Strategy to affirm the UK’s “world-leading” position in semiconductor research and manufacture.

The next generation of computer chips and processors are likely to be made of new polymers, moving beyond current silicon models, which should drive computing advances.

Digital twin technology

Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse dreams may be in tatters, but the ideas around digitally reproducing the physical world still have valuable applications for manufacturing.

In automotive and aerospace manufacturing, the duty to stress test products, ensuring they can withstand crushing forces and protect passengers, demands significant resources.

McReynolds says that, as “computing power increases”, so too does “the potential to create virtual worlds that act similarly to the real world”.

This means that digital twin technology can expedite the stress test process while keeping safety levels high and regulation-compliant. He said:

“Historically, the capacity of 3D modelling has been limited because, in a stress test scenario, there are so many different variables involved, and you wouldn’t have been able to model them all correctly.

“Greater computing power is changing this, enabling you to stress test many different parts of a product simultaneously and with high degrees of accuracy.”