Smart manufacturing refers to multiple ‘new normals’ in the context of manufacturing – that is, how industry will leverage the application of new disruptive technologies such as ‘Artificial intelligence’, ‘Edge computing’, ‘Robotics’, ‘Additive manufacturing’ (3D printing), ‘Gene editing’ and the ‘Internet of Things’, to change the face of traditional manufacturing. Smart manufacturing has been described as a “fusion of the digital, biological and physical world” and represents a change that is so significant that it is sometimes referred to as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Smart manufacturing could represent an important opportunity to boost sustainable manufacturing and, as its implementation expands, it will be essential to develop a better understanding of how it can contribute to sustainable development while improving system efficiency. Below, we explore one industry that will hopefully benefit from smart manufacturing to increase sustainability (the plastics industry), and one key enabler of smart manufacturing that is undergoing rapid development and expansion (additive manufacturing).
Today’s plastics, with a predominantly linear material flow, unquestionably face challenges, both regarding CO2-emissions due to their fossil-basis, and to plastic pollution (unintended leakage and subsequent accumulation of plastics in the environment or even the human body). The question is, how will we ensure we have the materials for the future without compounding these problems?
Many companies are developing alternatives based on renewable, biomass materials, including e.g. flax, mushrooms, and shrimp shells.[4,5] The formulation of existing plastics can also be changed to make them more degradable and, finally, innovations in recycling technologies will make manufacturing the materials of the future more sustainable.
As one of the largest sectors in the manufacturing industry, innovations in plastic production systems themselves are also a key driver of change. The data collected by more efficient sensors and smart machinery (see ‘Internet of Things’) can improve the consistency of products, limiting defects (and ultimately reducing plastic pollution), reducing energy consumption and costs, and improving competitiveness.[6,7]
Additive manufacturing produces objects through a process of layering together raw materials. This is different to traditional (subtractive) manufacturing, which creates parts out of raw materials. Additive manufacturing is widely known as ‘3D printing’, but this style of manufacturing also Includes ‘4D printing’, an emerging approach that allows the manufacture of products that respond to things like heat, light, and the passing of time.
The use of additive manufacturing is expected to increase, with many new applications for both commercial and personal use. The ability to print products for personal use will open markets for blueprints and designs, while increasing the customization options available to consumers (see ‘Customized products’). A potentially endless range of products could be manufactured using additive methods, including machinery parts, consumer goods such as shoes and furniture and healthcare products like hearing aids and prosthetics.[8,10]
If additive manufacturing grows, we can expect an increased impact on trade – perhaps a reduction in the transport of goods, along with an increase in the transport of raw materials. Overall, this would be expected to reduce global freight volume.
Of course, additive manufacturing has some challenges, such as ensuring cybersecurity and management of intellectual property. Companies and governments will need to be attentive to emerging issues to ensure the benefits of additive manufacturing are enjoyed by all.
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- Foresight Africa. Top priorities for the continent 2020-2030 (Brookings Institution, 2020)
- White paper on smart manufacturing (ISO Smart Manufacturing Coordinating Committee, 2021)
- Sustainable and smart manufacturing: an integrated approach (Sustainability, 2020)
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- Global strategic trends. The future starts today (UK Ministry of Defence, 2018)