CIM Perspectives has been published monthly for the past 11 years. I am retiring at the end of the year so it seems appropriate to use my last column to look at what the next millennium could bring to manufacturing.
One good indicator of where manufacturing is headed is provided by the Integrated Manufacturing Technology Roadmapping Initiative's (IMTR) 2015 Vision Statements. Below are some of the more challenging concepts:
- Product design and analytical simulation totally automated and ten times faster.
- Model-driven virtual prototyping, to optimize designs for performance, producibility, and function.
- Product data seamlessly exchanged and shared on a global basis during all product life cycle stages.
- "Best practice" design advisors to optimize process designs.
- Adaptive "on-the-fly" modification of process plans based on workload, equipment availability, staffing, and other factors.
- Autonomous agent-based shopfloor scheduling and control.
- Use of common data structures and data repositories on a national level.
- Self-learning and self-healing capabilities keep decision support tools current.
- Order-of-magnitude improvement in machine tool accuracy and repeatability.
- Self-diagnosis/healing machine tools.
- Modular manufacturing equipment with intelligent, model-based, open architecture controls.
Most of these statements of vision are not so shocking based on where manufacturing is today. But—there are other theories of manufacturing that challenge rational thinking in the area of nano-technology applied to manufacturing.
The term nanotechnology was coined by a Japanese researcher Norio Taniguchi in 1974 to mean precision machining with a tolerance of a micrometer or less. Today the term has come to apply to the technology of controlling the structure of materials down to a few atoms or molecules. Dr. Eric Drexler, chairman and founder of the Foresight Institute, is a researcher who has brought the term and the field into view. He holds a Ph.D. degree from MIT and is champion of a vision of synthetic molecular nanomachines made of mechanical parts consisting of actual gears and axles on a molecular scale. When these subminuscule parts are structured as self-replicating nanorobots they would push atoms and molecules together to build a wide array of essential materials. Drexler proposes that huge numbers of these nanorobots working together could supply the world's material needs at almost no cost.
Not only is there a good possibility that nanotechnology will totally change manufacturing as we know it today, there is an even greater possibility that it will revolutionize the entire computer industry. When today's silicon-based electronics are viewed on a nanoscale, conventional transistors leak electrons like sieves, and "dopant" atoms inserted into silicon to control its properties behave like huge, awkward boulders. Even though the nanoscale technology poses big obstacles to conventional electronic technology, it also opens up remarkable new possibilities that may leave today's electronics looking as much out-of-date as mechanical adding machines.
If electronic devices could be reduced to the size of individual molecules, then the game would be entirely altered. Molecular electronics was proposed in 1970 by Mark Ratner, now at Northwestern University and Ari Aviram of IBM. For years it remained a tantalizing idea far beyond the abilities of experimentalists. But during the past couple of years, leading-edge researchers have begun making actual wires and components out of single molecules and now they have begun making crude devices that actually work.
Science fiction, far-out, off-the-wall, blue sky—for sure, but what did the average shop worker say about John Parson's concepts and experiments to control a milling machine by numbers in 1948. Parson's concept that led to him being granted the patent for numerical control was no doubt very difficult concept for the average milling machine operator of that day to accept. What will the first 25 years of the new millennium bring us? I'm sure technical writers will have no problem finding interesting and challenging technology to write about.