Manufacturing has an image problem. The world is changing, a digital revolution has already taken place, technologies are shifting and businesses are innovating not just to win, but to stay relevant.
The NZ manufacturing landscape has changed, even in the last 20 years since I studied Manufacturing at University. Back then, New Zealand made appliances and cars. We now find ourselves better at short run manufacturing and better poised to meet ‘niche’ customer need. This makes us reactive, where we can customise at a fair cost with good quality. But is it attractive manufacturing?
I’ve just come back from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, where the best, brightest and most innovative hot new consumer technologies are showcased. An example is Amazon Alexa who have teamed up with Intel to deliver a true voice activated smart home. I came away knowing that this Internet of Things can put ‘sexy’ back into the manufacturing industry.
Youth (millennials) are flocking to digital careers but are yet to fully appreciate its convergence into manufacturing, or better put ‘The Industrial Internet of Things’. We can hardly blame them. A software developer for a gaming, music or camera developing company (all of which thrive in NZ) has a lot more appeal than a traditional PLC or CNC programmer in a factory.
Tech Futures Lab is running IoT courses in Auckland that showed me that $120 can get me a latest edition Raspberry Pi (a cheap computer), a breadboard (prototype your circuit board), free software and an ability to personally create an IoT device in minutes. OK, that sounds unbelievably simple, but it’s not far from the truth.
Whether its Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Google or Microsoft, Apple or an Android smart phone, it’s very accessible and simple to prototype a connected sensor (IoT) for initial testing and validation. This could be to create smart consumer based products or to make a factory IoT connected, but either way the pathway is incredibly simple now. Even for those of us that don’t write code, (Learning C wasn’t part of my curriculum) you can borrow code from GitHub and various other sites by simply googling it. At this point it doesn’t really matter as you are simply prototyping to test, validate and ‘fail fast’ should that be the outcome. The real work begins post validation in ensuring your architecture is sound, IP is considered and that dreaded word ‘security’ is taken care of now we work in the cyber world. Investments that can then be made with greater confidence.
Collaborative Robotics are opening up a whole new world of possibility for advanced manufacturing. These are humanoid style robotics and are inherently safe so don’t need to be locked up in a cage and are trained by moving their arms and end effectors (hands), as opposed to programming them. Callaghan Innovation has two of these robots available for NZ businesses to trial including Baxter. Proving how simple it is to use, a local 14-year-old had Baxter up and running in minutes and performing simple but detail specific tasks. These intuitive and quick to learn robotics have quick pay-back periods and are, quite literally, bringing the Jetsons to the factory floor.
Additive manufacturing is particularly fast moving and well represented in NZ. We have great metal printing capability and can now make low-run injection mould tooling from polymer plastic. CES this year featured a 3D printer that can print circuit boards. The Dragonfly 2020 is a dual material printer of both a polymer and silver to lay down up to 20 layers of tracks making it possible to build and test your electronics gizmo over a weekend.
And what will Virtual Reality start to do for advanced manufacturing? The DAQRI smart helmet now allows factory workers to get work instructions through their glasses. This means a paperless shop floor with detailed assembly instructions overlaid while your eyes stay on the task at hand.
This is just a taste of what we expect to see at the Hannover Fair in Germany in April. New Zealand businesses will get to visit the birthplace of Industry 4.0. This has become the German term for the Industrial Internet of Things and is a key strategy pillar for many multinational manufacturers. This is where the IoT will take hold in their factories and I believe is the digital convergence that is bringing sexy back into Manufacturing.
Reuse, recycle, upcycle – these are words which have either been part of our conversations for a long time, or in the case of ‘upcycle’, have come to prominence relatively recently through a variety of pinterest accounts, blogs, and other forms of social media.
Recycling refers to reprocessing a waste product into something useful, generally of a very similar nature but of a lower value, for example recycled office paper being turned into toilet paper. By comparison, upcycling is often used to refer to crafting old products into something with more value, for example, turning scrap wood into a side table.
Upcycling is moving beyond its craft emphasis though with some awesome examples of industrial-scale materials waste-stream upcycling happening.
A good case in point is the Ford Motor Company, which has partnered with Novomer to produce polymer foams for seat cushions in their cars. Novomer has developed a process where carbon dioxide captured from industrial plants is converted into higher value polymers – this not only adds value to a waste stream but also helps lock a greenhouse gas into a solid form.
We’re doing this in New Zealand too. Aduro Biopolymers have produced two new products from New Zealand agricultural waste streams. Novatein® is a bioplastic made from bloodmeal, a coproduct of the red meat industry that would usually be used as a fertiliser. Feathersorb™ is an environmentally-friendly cost-effective industrial absorbent product range made from poultry feathers, large volumes of which would normally be incinerated or disposed of in a landfill. A clever start up company, CarbonScape, is converting low value biomass waste stream, such as sawdust from the wood industry, into high value products like activated carbon by using microwave technologies.
More work is afoot at various New Zealand R&D institutions, such as Scion and Otago University, to develop the science that could lead to valuable waste stream upcycling. This research includes, among others, the development of the prototype Zespri biospife, a spoon-knife combo that is made from bioplastics and contains waste kiwifruit biomass; a gel that improves surgical outcomes and is made from chitosan, an extract from crab shells and squid pens; and a process for turning cattle bone into a new bone regeneration graft material to fight osteoporosis.
There are some fantastic local stories here, but I would raise the question – what other ‘waste’ or ‘low value’ material streams are currently being ignored which could be resources for innovative New Zealand companies to generate high value products? And how much is already being done in our R&D community that our companies could invest in or use? Time to get our thinking caps on!
The five best
Buddy the Robot – Bluefrogrobotics
Back at CES for a second year after more development. There are so many robots here with interesting uses - educational, assisted living, elder care, medical, security - but most don't seem to get the human connection right. You’ve got to want to have these guys around. Buddy is just someone you want to invite into your life.
Hypervsn – kino-mo
The Hypervsn spinning holograms at the kino-mo stand in Eureka Park were the stand out, with crowds six-deep for the whole four days You couldn't take your eyes off them. They were mesmerizing, and awesome for promoting anything. Yes, it’s existing technology, but put to use in a way I've never seen before. And they were great with music.
RadEQ - AYKOW
A French company that uses radon detection to (it claims) provide alerts for an earthquake up to 10 days in advance. The science is not exactly settled on whether radon detection is a useful alert mechanism for major quakes, but if the likes of AYKOW aren’t trying to create forecasting mechanisms, we’ll never get there.
MyEye - OrCam
Israeli firm OrCam have come up with a device to help the nearly blind. The MyEye device is a small camera mounted in reading glasses reads any printed text, on any surface, including newspapers, books, computer screens, restaurant menus, labels on supermarket products, and street signs, instantly relaying it to the user through a built-in mini speaker.
OrCam MyEye also recognizes stored faces of individuals and identifies consumer products.
ICAROS - ICAROS
Part VR game, part assistive technology, part workout, ICAROS’ mission statement is “we work on making you fly every day”. The user straps into an apparatus which allows them to simulate flying while working their core muscles. More complicated than your average gym class, but a hell of a lot more fun, too.
Smart or smart-arse?
The prefix “smart” is rapidly becoming overused to describe anything vaguely Internet of Things-enabled. So here are a few examples of smart-apparel that may or may not be genuinely smart – you decide.
Studies suggest close proximity of mobile phones to men’s, er, most valuable assets can harm fertility. Spartan have added 35 percent silver thread to cotton boxer shorts to create a fabric that acts as an electromagnetic shield.
Under Armour has created a range of “connected footwear” sports shoes which takes the MapMyRun concept a bit further, with the shoes ‘talking’ to MapMyRun, recording cadence, pace, and the mileage lifetime of the shoe. It can also measure the wearer’s muscular fatigue level before he or she even gets started.
Another Under Armour creation. Bioceramic sleepwear that emits far infrared light, reducing inflammation, allowing athletes to recover faster through sleep. At least, so says their spokes-athlete Tom Brady, of the New England Patriots and under-inflated balls fame.
Laundroid is the world’s first laundry-folding robot. Using complex image recognition and folding capability, it currently takes the Japanese invention five to 10 minutes to fold a shirt. Handy if you have lots of time and money to throw at your irrational phobia of folding clothes.
The Sprucebot provides free wifi to customers at cafes and bars, and allows the staff to record information about the small talk they engage in during their visit. When the customer returns, the shop staff get an alert prompting them on where their conversation left-off. Making those nice moments of interaction less genuine and more accurate, just like you wanted.
Callaghan Innovation has been letting businesses see for themselves if robotics could help improve productivity and efficiency, letting their human staff focus on higher-value work. But don’t take our word for it, let Baxter explain for himself.
Tell us a bit about yourself?
Sure, I am an industrial, collaborative robot. I’m designed to do simple industrial jobs such as loading, sorting and handling of materials. I can do these jobs working right next to people, because I can sense when someone moves close to me and I can measure how much force I am applying to something and stop if it’s too high. I was created by Rethink Robotics in 2012. I am 1.8m tall, 140kg and can be wheeled about anywhere. I have a younger brother called Sawyer.
What do you like best about your job?
I like a challenge! Unlike my cousins who require the environment around them to be very precise, I can adapt to things. For example, I can pick up items that aren’t precisely aligned, then re-orient and place them correctly. I can also see stuff around me, which means I can recognise parts - important when you are trying to sort apples from oranges. I also love working! When my human coworkers need rests, I just carry on, in fact when they go home at the end of the day I carry on then too! Don’t worry though, I’m not going to take over, I need my human coworkers to work on higher value things around the factory. I’m good at adapting to a new job quickly too, just wheel me in, I’m easy to programme and away I go, no safety cages and no complex jigs and fixtures.
What do you think are places where you might be better suited to work than a person? Why?
I just love the repetitive stuff! My human coworkers get bored more easily but I can keep up with repetitive jobs like loading material into machines that can be quite dangerous such as presses and guillotines. My skills mean I don’t put my fingers where they shouldn’t go. I can also handle hot, cold, fragile, sharp and sticky stuff humans don’t like touching. I’m good at counting and inspecting stuff too.
For a business thinking about robotic technologies, what is your advice about where they should start?
I would recommend the Better by Lean business workshop run by Callaghan Innovation which helps you review your business processes and management systems to improve productivity, reduce waste and enhance customer experience. In my experience, businesses that automate well do so when their processes are already “lean”.
Start thinking about automation opportunities in your business: Which processes could be good candidates for automation, which of these would be suitable to test? Engage with potentially affected employees. Many businesses have found that they redeploy any affected staff to other higher value activities.
Build a business case to show how automation supports your business needs. Think about the benefits, and what challenges could be overcome. Consider how will you measure whether automation has been valuable and develop a strategy for re-deploying your existing human resources.
Determine the operations model. Ask whether you have right staff and infrastructure to assess for new automation opportunities and support the automation, both hardware and software.
Identify your automation partners, who best fits with your needs and your business and understand what you are paying for.
Finally, have a strong implementation plan. Determine how long the pilot should be if you have one and what are the stages after this?
Who is your hero in the robot world?
‘Data’ from Star Trek
What’s next for you?
In the longer term, one of my creators Jim Lawton from Rethink Robotics says there are a couple of things that will help my friends and I be more useful in the future. The first is increased dexterity, such as being able to thread a needle or unwrap a package. Secondly, teaching machines to learn algorithms that can see the bigger picture, for example, if an algorithm is trained to recognise dogs, we can do that with a high level of accuracy. But if we are shown a picture of a family playing frisbee with their dog on the beach, we will be clueless about anything else besides the dog. As a consequence of these improvements, we will be able to access vast databases, recognise people, machines and parts, be able to derive insights and act on them.
In the short term, I better see which Callaghan Innovation customer I am meeting next!
Producing physical product is hard work and staying connected to the necessary supply-chain is a constant struggle when you have a business to run, so with this in mind the Callaghan Innovation Manufacturing Trek hit the road once again, this time visiting the manufacturing mecca of Hamilton.
After a hugely successful pilot programme where the Manufacturing Treks visited contract manufactures in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Southern China as decided we needed to go check out the supply chain of the ‘Tron’. With the bus loaded with customers, designers and engineers we hosted another day on the road.
It’s not just the visits that provide value, but also the conversations had during the bus trip. One of the trekkers, Oliver McDermott from Blender Design, told us these Treks are “a great opportunity to talk with other product creators and those involved in product development, to share knowledge and experiences between each other.
The context in which the discussions happen on the bus between factories influences the focus and depth of the discussions and gets people sharing more openly with each other.”
Nathan re-iterates from previous trips “there is amazing and unique manufacturing capability in this country and you will not appreciate this by trawling the internet. You have to personally meet the owners or factory managers, recognise their points of difference and understand why they are chosen over cheaper offshore option. Hamilton is no different, in fact what we are seeing is a trend of leveraging on a Dairy and Agriculture focus to a wider and smarter competitive manufacturing offering”
The day kicked off with Gloster Engineering who specialise in precision CNC turning and milling. Gloster have the capability to produce part quantities of 1-50,000 from an array of materials; brass, stainless steel, aluminium and many engineering plastics.
Their high-quality components are assembled into everything from drench guns to road painting systems for local and global distribution.
Millennium Plastics was up next and the group learnt about Millennium’s ability to support the AgriTech & MedTech industries with high-quality injection moulded parts for nearly 17 years.
Millennium have grown to factory bursting 23 injection moulding machines many of which are combined with robotics and automation systems that radically increase productivity. Millennium are well known for their ability to work with lesser known engineering polymers and have invested in a silicon moulding capability allowing them to produce high-quality parts for the likes of F&P Healthcare.
Millennium pride themselves with doing the hard stuff and are always up for a challenge.
A huge shout out must be given to our Waikato Callaghan Innovation Regional Business Partners Novell & Craig who supported the trek arranging visits and providing connectivity that only comes from local experience.
A trip to Hamilton wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to Waikato Innovation Park. This is a booming technology park containing like-minded, technology savvy tenants pushing the boundaries on R&D and maximising that investment by commercialising their products into global markets.
The next stop was ‘Tech Gym’ hosted by the engineering school at Wintech. Based on the TechShop makerspace model from North America the TechGym utilises the incredible investment in kit made by Wintech for their students and on a monthly subscription basis opens the workshops to the public.
Much of the activity is local members learning about production process for personal projects, but TechGym is growing as the enabler for young Waikato start-ups whom cannot yet afford the investment in manufacturing/prototyping kit of their own.
Last but certainly not least was a visit to TCS (technology concepts solutions). TCS have a track record of solving the tricky things and have in the past supplied launch pad technology solutions to NASA an example of little old NZ’s ability to ‘crank it’ on the global stage! TCS specialise in electronics hardware and software solutions for the likes of Fonterra.
TCS has also creating their own IP and technical solutions that answer the increasing need for energy efficient home environment systems. ATA Touch is a system that manages and controls your homes lighting, air flow and water needs through a highly intuitive and customisable interface.
Even though I personally come from a design and manufacturing background I’m consistently surprised and encouraged by the high-quality level of manufacturing capability we uncover on each of the NZ treks as well as the willingness of our contract manufactures to be involved early to help their customers succeed.
Stay tuned for future Manufacturing Treks and increased collaborative ‘bus value’.
Companies on the Bus were; BoxFish Research, Methven, Blender Design, BEP Marine, MW Design, Locus Research, LIC Automation, KiWee Innovation
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