Manufacturing guy-at-large.

Smart Factories & Design Intent

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Robert Schouwenburg, writing on Medium about a utopian idea of manufacturing automation.

To be clear humans are still needed. Certain steps are better handled by a human (refill / maintenance of machines or specific process steps like assembly or packing of parts – all depending on the factory setup and supported production steps), but the human is just a resource in the factory. A resource which can be planned and directed by a computer. It is not about fully automating the factory but about the creating a smart factory.

So how does this work? A product production request comes in. Based on the product production requirements a production plan is generated. The production plan contains each step necessary to produce each part and – if applicable – how the product is put together. The production of the product is scheduled based on capacity and necessary process steps. Not only the machine are planned but also human operators where needed. In the end the factory runs itself in the most optimal way based on the incoming production requests.

Today, we miss a significant piece in this puzzle. The current standards for design files (Autodesk's .ipt, Solidworks' .sdlprt, the ISO .step format, and of course the now-ubiquitous .stl) are agnostic regarding manufacturing processes. They simply convey geometry, and don't communicate anything about how that geometry is to be created.

I suppose that an ideal manufacturing environment would be clever enough to analyze part geometries and produce a manufacturing plan that was highly optimized for efficiency, but that reality is still far away. It's also worth noting that such a world would never produce another Eames Lounge Chair Wood - an artifact which was designed specifically as a use case for a new material and manufacturing process. When computers control the manufacturing method, the only control a human has is to tell it what shape to make.

I should be clear that I don't fight that future's development; nor do I have enough foresight to find it either delightful or troubling. But it's worthwhile to consider the implications of a world in which the nature of design is so radically reimagined - and it's good to consider what it'll take to get there from where we are now.