Tech Trends for 2016

February 16, 2016

2015 tech trends

As seen on IndustryWeek.com

By Matt Lawell

Drones, virtual reality, augmented reality and the Internet of Things (Industrial and otherwise) will top all sorts of buzzword lists this year. But what about the new manufacturing tech that has been glossed over a little? Here are some of the developments that could help you transform for 2016.

We all have some idea about how science fiction will blur into reality this year, with drones, virtual reality and, of course, the Internet of Things (Industrial and otherwise) topping all sorts of buzzword lists. Any of those technologies could — and probably will — affect manufacturing this year, next year and for the foreseeable future.

But what about the new tech glossed over or outright ignored by the mainstream media? Go deep with a look at some of the other developments that aren’t cluttering all the headlines. This is going to be another fun year for manufacturing tech, and January 2017 is going to look a little more different than it does today. Here are some of the trends and developments that will help steer it along.

If you ask two random American whether they play video games, say, every week or so, odds are good that one of them will say yes.

According to a 2015 study from the Entertainment Software Association — which, to be fair, is a champion for that industry — more than 155 million Americans play video games at least once every week. Many play on consoles like the Microsoft Xbox One and the Sony PlayStation 4, but far more play on their phones or tablets (games like Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds do count, after all). And it’s those little devices that could open the enterprise world to more and more professional video games.

Take Rob Honeycutt, for example. An old sales guy, he had no experience with manufacturing or software, but stumbled into both back in 2007 while building a plant for his company, SafeRack, which engineers and manufactures industrial safety products from its South Carolina headquarters, including custom loading platforms, fall protection equipment and gangways. He realized he needed a better ERP system and worked through the problem with his team. The result was the first generation of a software system that designs custom equipment and delivers quotes within minutes.

“We turned that into a video game,” Honeycutt says. “It eliminates the (request for quote) process. You no longer have to go back to the engineering department and wait for the drawings.” Because the system is the software, design changes on either end along the way are updated almost instantaneously, which cuts down on site visits, engineer updates and that RFQ timeline.

“I call them video games,” Honeycutt says, “but in reality, the engine that we run and the way we program it and do all the algorithms, it’s just a ton of engineering that’s running in the background. … A lot of times, when you say video games, it almost trivializes the scope of what it’s solving.”

No matter what you call it, SafeRack’s system definitely has the look and feel of a video game — first-person perspective, of course — right down to the tablet touchscreen. “When we meet with clients, we always insist they see it in that form, because the effect is so different.”

The company currently has quotes out on vehicles like ambulances and fire engines, as well as much larger orders, like factory floors with “gauges and valves and pumps and conveyors and fencing and, gosh, the list is just all over the place.”

If Honeycutt’s idea and the notion of video games for manufacturing still sound a little odd, consider what Kris Alexander, who focuses on IoT and connected devices as chief strategist for content delivery network services company Akamai, has to say.

“One of the reasons we stay close to the gaming industry is that I find that it tends to lead the rest of what’s going on in software, from anywhere from 18 to 24 months. That’s not only in terms of new technology, but also new business models that are being tried out. The limits tend to be tested more, because you have a savvier user base. Folks are trying to press limits and do things they shouldn’t do. A lot of the early security breaches were game sites.”

The way video games are updated, too — often with automatic updates sent out regularly — could affect manufacturing. “Release cycles are compressing and folks are looking at what they can compress down in terms of functionality,” Alexander says. “It changes their development release cycles, and they’re looking to release on many different platforms.

“If you’re a manufacturer and you have subsystems that are outsourced to another vendor, and that vendor — Caterpillar, say, or GE — sends out required updates, what does that mean for you? Will you have to understand all those updates? … Most software runs locally. It may connect to a server, but more functionality tends to run locally. In the gaming space, they’ve moved to running the whole application in the cloud and then streaming the output.”

No matter hardware, software, network, cloud or some other part of that world, you can definitely turn to video games to tweak, update or outright improve your factory floor and your program in 2016.

Uber and Lyft for a ride, Airbnb for a good night’s rest and … CloudDDM for custom, overnight additive manufacturing? If you have a need to print parts and want to take advantage of the still burgeoning sharing economy, then, yeah, absolutely.

Short for Direct Digital Manufacturing, CloudDDM grew from mfg.com and the entrepreneurial mind of Mitch Free and, like so many inventions, was born out of necessity. “I think this really started to emerge about five years ago,” Free says, “and as we started to look to add additive manufacturing to mfg.com, one of the things I noticed was there was no speed around it. Everything was very bespoke, and seven to 10 days was considered fast.

“The people who were buying the parts were saying, ‘That’s an eternity.’”

Forget about a week. Heck, forget about two days. Because CloudDDM works with UPS — its headquarters are in Atlanta and it runs most of its 3-D printers from the UPS Supply Chains Solution campus in Louisville — it can have your requested parts at your door, or even on your desk, the next morning. You’ll still need to know how to design parts, of course, but you might not need a 3-D printer on site.

Headquarters inside the UPS hub helps cut down hours, often days, from project times. “We have the ability to print parts until midnight and have them anywhere in the country by 10 a.m.,” Free says. “It gives us about six hours more printing time.”

The company operates in Canada, too, with 2016 expansion plans into Europe and Asia. And after that, “what’s next is technology and materials. Today, the bulk of our parts are ABS and polycarbonate, plastic parts. We do have capabilities for metals, we can additively produce metal parts, so we want to grow the capabilities and we want to do that in a very automated way that minimizes human intervention. We think to make additive manufacturing a real viable production solution, the cost has to come down.”

And additive manufacturing is far from the only product entering the sharing realm. You can dive into autonomous driving tech without making the investment thanks to 5D Robotics, which provides automation for the defense and energy sectors, and recently partnered with United Rentals to spread to rental branches.

“It’s a trend that’s been taking shape for quite some time,” 5D Robotics CEO David Bruemmer says. “Fewer and fewer businesses want to invest the capital to own all of the equipment. What we’re seeing is everything from chemical plants to construction yards to municipalities, people are able to rent equipment when they need it, and I think it is part of a greater shared economy that we see emerging.

“We’re trying to create a safer, more efficient ecosystem. And you can have fewer systems because they move so much more efficiently — and you can have them come to you.”

Not long after Ken Klapproth started designing jet engines for Pratt & Whitney back in the 1980s, he received a printed card, 4 inches by 6 inches, with a list of approved materials. He tucked it in his pocket, referred to it often and considered it to be, at the time, the best way to examine and select potential materials.

“But as advanced materials came along, as new alloys came along, as super alloys came along for making engines go to higher temperatures and better fuel efficiencies,” Klapproth said, “the ability to kind of manually look through those materials and compare all those variables — in your head or on a spreadsheet — became too difficult.”

Which is one reason Klapproth ditched that card years ago. Now, as part of the R&D solutions team at Elsevier, which aims to provide web-based, digital solutions, he’s focused on providing a more effective and more efficient way to select those materials.

“What we see in 2016,” he says, “is providing new functionality that would allow engineers and equipment manufacturers to look across material types to select the optimum material for their application, regardless of what the key performance outcomes need to be.” Which means properties regarding cost, manufacturability, even performance thermodynamics, are all normalized and combined with proprietary equations to analytically determine the best material, along with the necessary information solutions.

The normalization of data is key, Klapproth says. The performance characteristics of a metal are different than those of, say, a polymer or a composite. In order to adequately and accurately compare those materials, Elsevier is developing schema to normalize across various material types.

“There are a variety of approaches engineers use to solve their problems,” Klapproth says, “and while I think some of the statistical or numerical ones are easier to solve, just organizing information in a way that makes those things useful and normalizing data is revolutionary enough to be able to put together types or classes of information that people haven’t been able to do easily before. Being able to compare, side by side, can spark that ah ha moment, when you can replace something that’s very heavy or expensive, even an unforeseen use for something.”

It’s “not as glamorous as big data, but it’s something that’s eluded engineers for a long time.”

If you want to reinvent the service supply chain, why not just turn the whole thing on its proverbial head? That’s what Minnesota software company Verisae is trying to do.

The company is spending plenty of time with predictive maintenance, figuring out and refining how to detect and avert equipment problems before they happen. And while no system is perfect, this one seems to have enjoyed plenty of early success. “We’ve hooked up 70,000 pieces of equipment” for one of our British customers, CEO Jerry Dolinsky says, “and we’re now getting that data and predicting a day to 10 days before that equipment could have possible failure.” Pretty good window, and it should get better, especially with more and more information from which to cull, and lower and lower costs.

“With the advent of the cost of technology coming down, to deploy devices to sensors to take alarms and telemetry data, we built a … closed-end loop,” Dolinsky says. “We take big data in, and” — by basically automating the workflow — “we make big data small.”

Big data, sensors, and plenty of algorithms are big parts of the process. The supply chain itself, though, is at the heart. “If I’m XYZ company and I’m buying this piece of equipment from this manufacturer,” Dolinsky says, “what I’m demanding right now is that uptime of that equipment should be 100%. Because if the machine is smarter and has the ability to send data and predict when it will fail, then why would it ever fail? … The other thing I’m demanding is that I no longer want to see the brochure for maintenance costs and efficiency. Just guarantee it. It’s allowing buyers to be much smarter with the data.”

The three primary scenarios — and your equipment probably falls under one of these wide umbrellas — are break fixes, where equipment is broken and needs to be fixed within a certain time period; planned preventive maintenance; and new installation or replacement. Those are allowing end users to redefine “the way they look at things, service things, do business. That’s the most exciting thing, and we see it on all sides of the supply chain.”

Companies are “getting smarter,” Dolinsky says, “and they’re building smarter equipment that sends them data, and they’re using different solutions to change the way they do things.”

You might have heard about Voxel8 — one of the more impressive tech startups of the last year or so — because of all the Harvard brains on its staff, or because of its development of the first multi-material 3-D electronics printer. But you might have missed the breadth of what the small group (just 14 team members) is capable of doing.

“3-D printing kind of offered the opportunity to print your imagination, to print anything,” co-founder and business development lead Daniel Oliver says. “But it still limited you to a single material. When people see our printer, and when they see that you can print with multiple materials, it really resonates.”

Oliver and the rest of the Voxel8 team likes to use that slogan — print your imagination — and it really is what keeps the company in the mind of both the serious hobbyist and the professional. No matter what you want to develop, being able to 3-D print with multiple materials on the same machine opens more possibilities: Production runs of one or two, after all, are its very intent. When asked what the printers might be used for beyond quadcopters and logos, Oliver turns quickly to small, custom items, like hearing aids and other electronics: “We’re excited to see where people go.”

What are the odds Voxel8 printers wind up in the R&D departments or even on the floors of some small and mid-sized manufacturers? With a price tag of $8,999, probably higher than expected. Why not tool around with one-offs on a state-of-the-art machine? Why not expand your professional collection of gadgets and gizmos a little more and see what happens?

Printers ordered now will ship this year — with early delivery guaranteed during the second quarter for that full payment, or a spot in line for a $500 deposit now and the remainder before shipping.

Jerry Foster and Jason Prater have worked together at Plex Systems for long enough that whenever they get together, they have an innate ability to play off each other and finish each other’s thoughts. Foster is the chief technology officer at Plex, a Michigan software company that focuses on ERP, the cloud and emerging technologies. Prater is the vice president of development there. They are tech geeks, to say the very least, and these are some of their geeky thoughts about the near future.

IW: Is IoT, IIoT going to catch on in a larger consumer setting? Or is it going to transition into more of a manufacturer’s tool? Because it feels like it could become the latter.

Prater: It’s been around in manufacturing for a longer time. … It’s just expected now. Like GE, whenever they create a new product, it’s connected. It’s just expected. They would probably have no idea what to do if you said you didn’t want to connect: “Is this for the military? I’m confused.” Manufacturers love data — maybe because a lot of them are engineers, and they love to hear about data sets — and that’s where they see the value in it, where they’ll continue to drive it.

Foster: What I see on the consumer side, and maybe it’s just where we’re at — in the Rust Belt, rather than Silicon Valley — there seems to be more of a subset of geeky people who are interested in it. It doesn’t seem to be mainstream yet. I suspect on the West Coast, people are more into things like Nest. The consumer side is very fickle.

Prater: I like the Nest example. It’s a pretty good product, people love it — I want the one that locks your front door — and I think the price points will come down. I still don’t see the point of an IoT-connected refrigerator.

IW: Right. The big selling point for fridges always seems to be it will tell you when you need milk. I know when I need milk: Either when I’m out of milk, or when it smells.

Prater: Usefulness. Stanley, I think, has a garage door opener that will tell you if you left your garage door open when you leave, but also if it’s up at night. My wife and I always argue about, “You let the raccoons in.”

IW: That’s useful.

Prater: The consumer side will pick up some more practical uses. It’s like the opposite of Google Glass: It’s ahead of the curve.

Foster: In Japan, they’re so far ahead of the game in this area, especially when it comes to robotics, even in the home. They have a different mindset, they have a different mentality, they think differently about privacy, and they’re interested in having all this robotic help in their consumer life. It completely dominates.

Prater: Maybe as the Boomers get up there in age.

Foster: They create robots for manual labor, too.

For more great industry insider perspective, check out our Manufacturing Leader of the Week series, with new conversations Mondays.