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Manufacturing Heading into Better Times

Manufacturing Heading into Better Times

“The manufacturing sector comprises establishments engaged in the mechanical, physical, or chemical transformation of materials, substances, or components into new products”.1 From the early days of simplistic tooling to the mechanization approach for textile mills in Britain followed by Henry Ford’s assembly line, manufacturing practices continue to evolve, impacting every aspect of our lives. Advanced manufacturing systems are not only needed to support job creation but also to meet the needs of a growing population. By 2040, it is estimated that there will be around 9 billion people requiring the basic necessities of life! Pangaea Ventures’ focus on advanced materials provides a unique view on emerging manufacturing technologies. We like to see advantaged features, such as, sustainability, low cost, robustness, energy efficiency and scalability.

“As goes manufacturing, so goes the nation”!2 In other words, the manufacturing capabilities of a nation influence its economic prosperity and security. The top ten nations (ranked in order) in the 2013 Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index were China, Germany, USA, India, South Korea, Taiwan, Canada, Brazil, Singapore and Japan. Nine of these nations are predicted to remain in the top 10 in the next five years! Not surprisingly, the report noted the strong association between the manufacturing gross domestic product (GDP) and overall GDP of a nation. The report also discusses the key drivers of manufacturing competitiveness, with talent-driven innovation rated as #1, followed by factors, such as, economic system, cost of labor and materials, and supplier network. Much has been written about the manufacturing shift to Asia and the resulting consequences to the Western World. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Technological advances and transformative techniques can do much to level the field.

Innovative forces are already in play. We are now experiencing the impact of automation, robotics, continuous materials processing, digitization, new manufacturing techniques, such as additive manufacturing (3-D printing), biology mediated transformation and revolutionary process tools for electronics and healthcare. Engineers are presently looking to leverage the “the internet of things”. Imagine connecting millions of machines across manufacturing sectors, supply chain and product distribution! There is no shortage of predictions on the future of manufacturing. McKinsey has written extensively on the subject and highlighted trends, such as, lights out manufacturing, around the clock additive printing, automated remote monitoring and control, advanced materials innovation and nanotechnology. I am betting that even more dramatic changes are on the way!

New manufacturing approaches open up opportunities for sustainability. Pollution control, reduced energy input, less waste, recycling, life cycle management and use of renewable feedstocks are being designed into manufacturing processes. Sustainable manufacturing is even more important today in light of resource availability and ramifications of global issues such as climate change and population increases. The Obama administration is pushing forward on clean energy manufacturing programs and President Obama’s in his 2014 State of the Union Address highlighted the launching of hubs for high tech manufacturing, connecting businesses to research universities. Other government agencies, such as ARPA-E, are actively supporting novel sustainable production pathways for advanced materials.

Quality is still relevant. Manufacturing quality control has come a long way from the original pass-fail inspection practice. Techniques pioneered by Shewhart, Deming and others led to the use of statistical process control (SPC) and the concept of total quality management (TQM). With Deming’s assistance, Japan led the way with TQM systems where Toyota smartly incorporated quality tools in their manufacturing. You must have also heard about six sigma, smart manufacturing, flexible manufacturing, just in time, lean manufacturing, etc. Lean can be thought of as a disciplined management approach to address key issues, such as, waste, efficiency, cycle time, productivity, cost, product reliability and customer satisfaction. Today, lest we forget, prestigious awards such as the Deming Prize in Japan and the Malcolm Baldrige Award in the US recognize excellence in quality.

New thinking makes a difference. Materials technology innovations are driving both new and improved manufacturing processes. Biotechnology facilitated transformation is enabling the move away from the traditional petrochemical-based feedstock and chemicals and the accompanying processes. Calysta Energy and Vestaron are developing disruptive approaches along these lines. Other Pangaea portfolio companies are actively contributing; Cnano Technology has commercialized high volume nanomaterials production, Redlen Technologies is scaling up enhanced crystal growing operations for breakthrough biomedical applications, Envia Systems is developing novel electrode fabrication routes to high energy density lithium ion batteries, Boulder Ionics is working on high throughput synthesis processing and Switch Materials is pioneering novel low cost coatings for energy efficient windows.

Manufacturing certainly has the attention of leaders and policy makers around the world. Countries are battling not only to secure their manufacturing share but also to establish dominance. You can expect to see more innovations and disruptive methods impacting manufacturing productivity, competitiveness and sustainability. It can be done! Elon Musk overcame barriers to get Tesla Motors going and now planning a renewables powered “Gigafactory” for battery manufacturing in the US!

1 US Department of Labor, Manufacturing: NAICS 31-33
2 2013 Global Manufacturing Competitive Index (Deloitte, U.S. Council on Competitiveness)

General Partner, Pangaea Ventures Ltd. Purnesh has worked with advanced materials for over 25 years, directly involved with clean technologies, nanotechnology, semi-conductors, thin films and coatings, catalysts, powder metallurgy, and manufacturing technologies.View Purnesh Seegopaul's profile on LinkedIn

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Guest Monday, 09 December 2019