News and events

It’s time to make manufacturing sexy

This article was published on 16 February 2017

Callaghan Innovation's Nathan Stantiall says the next generation of job seekers are yet to fully appreciate the potential of a job in the tech-savvy world of Manufacturing 4.0.

Nathan Stantiall models a DAQRI augmented reality helmet at CES 2017
Nathan Stantiall models a DAQRI augmented reality helmet at CES 2017


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.