The 21st century factory

By Rodney Weidemann, ITWeb Contributor
Johannesburg, 05 Aug 2021
Olga-Lee Levey
Olga-Lee Levey

Innovation is key to driving a business forward, whatever the industry sector, and being innovative is about more than merely adopting new technology. Innovation can include the utilisation of new business models, the development of new processes and services, and the enhancement of existing products.

Naturally, technology does support and help to increase innovation, says Olga-Lee Levey, CIO, Mustek. Although technically a distributor, Mustek also has a finger in the manufacturing pie with its Mecer line of PCs.

Levey points out that technological advancements can allow manufacturers to create higher quality goods faster than before, at a lower cost, while helping them to realise more efficient operations, thereby increasing their competitiveness.

“Innovators and engineers are constantly improving upon existing technologies to fulfil unmet needs, provide goods for untapped markets, and, crucially, remain ahead of the curve. Mustek, for example, has identified five key technologies that are beginning to impact manufacturing innovation,” she says.

Technology and innovation

The first of these is additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, which involves creating a three-dimensional product by building materials, layer by layer, through the control of a computer. “This results in a high-precision replica of an original design, meaning less waste during the production process, ultimately saving the manufacturer money.”

Historically, this has been expensive, she notes. However, recent advances have enabled additive manufacturing to become more affordable, and it’s anticipated it will become a common option for smaller manufacturers.

“I have no doubt that 3D printers will continue to change the manufacturing landscape, if only by creating more efficient ways to manufacture custom parts and goods,” says Levey.

The rise of the digitally discerning consumer and business customer has brought the manufacturing sector to an important moment, where an appreciation of this new landscape is the key to remaining relevant.

Olga-Lee Levey

The second development is advanced materials, including advanced composites, which have to date been largely restricted to use in a limited number of high-cost applications. However, she says, efforts are underway to develop manufacturing processes that lower cost and speed up production, such that advanced composites can be integrated into a much wider range of products and applications. 

No modern technology list would be complete without cloud computing, which companies are increasingly using across various geographic locations, in order to share data and thus make better business decisions. Furthermore, Levey adds that on the shop floor, cloud computing helps reduce costs, improves quality control and shortens production times.

“Similarly, the Internet of Things (IoT) opens up the possibility of a smart manufacturing facility. Imagine a workplace where connected equipment will be able to communicate via the internet and computerised manufacturing machinery will be able to consistently notify people about operating conditions. Once a problem is detected, a notification is sent to other networked devices, so the entire process can be automatically adjusted. The end-result will be reduced downtime, improved quality, less waste and lower costs.”

The final technology on the list is nanotechnology, which includes matter between 1 and 100 nanometres – a nanometre is one-billionth of a metre. Traditionally, this has been used in the aerospace and biomedical arenas, but it’s now being used to manufacture lightweight, stronger materials for boats, sporting equipment, auto parts and eyeglasses, among other things. “Nanostructured catalysts also make chemical manufacturing processes more efficient, by saving energy and reducing waste, and will have increased applications in healthcare and pharmaceuticals.”

Manufacturing challenges

Perhaps the biggest challenge for a company like Mustek is that the global chip shortage is unlikely to abate any time soon.

“Everyone has woken up to the realisation that practically every product we use contains a semi-conductor of some kind and there really isn’t enough manufacturing capacity to produce them all. People have learnt that GPUs are useful for processing AI workloads, mobile phones have become much more powerful and the IoT has become a reality, fuelled by rapid improvement in price-performance ratios on chips,” notes Levey.

The real challenge, she adds, is that technical advances don’t go backwards. This means that humanity will always need more chips, but at present, the manufacturing capacity is struggling to keep up. Increasing supply isn’t a simple or quick undertaking either. Chip manufacturing facilities require billions in investments and at least two years to construct.

“Due to this crisis, distributors have been forced to diversify their supplier base, not to mention plan better and, when stock is available, buy significantly more. In addition, creating strategic alliances between distributors, manufacturers and resellers and traders has helped with finding the small volume for components.

Levey says it’s important to do your homework, prior to introducing any new technology. She indicates that this means watching both global trends and the local market, and conducting a considerable amount of research on both.

“Based on this, we expect to see more automation, more standardisation, and lots of claims about AI. Drivers for the success of these systems include ease of use, followed by speed, and then cost.”

In order to keep up with a rapidly changing consumer marketplace, Mustek believes that the industry still has work to do, to make sure it’s prepared for the technologies that will come to define it.

“The rise of the digitally discerning consumer and business customer has brought the manufacturing sector to an important moment, where an appreciation of this new landscape is the key to remaining relevant.

“By keeping in mind the digital technologies that are set to play an important role in facilitating this shift, manufacturing companies can be confident that they are on the right track, and are ultimately operating in a way that makes them fit for the future,” says Levey.