Meet Your Maker: The Third Industrial Revolution Will Be Crowdsourced and Digitized

February 25, 2014

Henry Ford was fond of saying that “nothing was particularly hard if you divided it into small jobs.” He followed his own advice, built world’s first assembly lines that cranked out 15 million Model Ts, and left his competitors in the dust. Engineers are now taking Ford’s advice to the extreme and breaking down the factory to bits and bytes.

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“Software, data and analytics are changing what we can make in ways I couldn’t imagine when I left school,” says Christine Furstoss, global technology director at GE Global Research. “It’s more than 3-D printing jet engine parts from a digital file, which we already do. We can build a factory that can make itself better. We call it the Brilliant Factory.”

Furstoss spent Tuesday afternoon at the White House, where President Obama announced that he would open two new innovation institutes to boost advanced manufacturing in the U.S. The first one, in Chicago, will focus on digital manufacturing and design innovation. The other, in Detroit, will experiment with light-weight materials. “It’s all about growing a new generation of workforce,” Furstoss says. “The next manufacturing revolution can be an American revolution.”

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This “bone chip” lattice cube was made from titanium on an electron beam melting machine (EBM). The organic design makes it two thirds lighter than a solid cube, while maintaining the solid’s compression strength. This design could deliver huge material savings and weight reduction. 

The White House had previously opened two innovation institutes, in Raleigh, NC, and Youngstown, OH. It will launch four more this year, beyond the two just announced.

As an industry partner, GE will give the Chicago institute access to crowdsourcing technology, allowing teams to collaborate on design and manufacturing in “the cloud.” In Detroit, GE materials scientists will help guide new ideas and concepts in materials manufacturing. The company is also working with the Youngstown institute, which is focusing on 3D printing.

Mark Little, head of GE Global Research, says that manufacturing is “entering the Third Industrial Revolution” and requires workers to master new, advanced skills.

He sees the “21st century assembly line” as “a digital thread” connecting design with production and the manufacturing supply chain. “It will invite a whole new community of small and medium-sized businesses, individual entrepreneurs and the Maker movement to be key partners in this new manufacturing ecosystem,” Little says. “That is exactly what these two institutes will help to cultivate, and in the process encourage the growth of America’s manufacturing base and jobs.”

Furstoss says GE is already using some “Brilliant Factory” features at its new plant in Albany making advanced Durathon batteries. The factory installed more than 10,000 sensors that measure temperature, humidity, air pressure and machine operations data. Workers can remotely monitor production from wireless tablets, adjust conditions and prevent malfunctions with the swipe of a finger.

Furstoss says that designers, production engineers, and supply chain partners will soon collaborate on crowdsourcing platforms and virtually test the manufacturing process without touching materials or machines. “They will download the process to intelligent machines on the factory floor when they are ready,” she says. “When production starts, they will be able to make real-time adjustments based on what’s happening to optimize efficiency.”

Says Little: “Imagine a factory that can continuously self-improve its products and processes. With a seamless digital thread that can gather, analyze and transmit data real-time to different parts of the supply chain, that day is coming.”

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This hand was 3D printed on an Objet Connex500 machine that can use two different resins at the same time. In this example, designers used a hard resin for the bones and a soft one for the flesh. GE is not moving into making body parts, yet, but 3D printing is helping engineers rapidly prototype and test their designs, and speed up parts development.