November 2015 saw a Business Day held at CSEM headquarters. During the event, Christian Enz, Director of IMT–EPFL, and Michel Despont, Vice-President and Head of CSEM’s MEMS program, led a discussion with industry experts on the potential of augmented manufacturing for Swiss businesses and Switzerland’s economy.
In order to contextualize recent developments, the introductory talk began with a concise history of manufacturing. At each stage, from steam-driven machines (the eighteenth century) to production lines (the early twentieth century) and the first use of electronics and IT to automate production (the 1970s), technological advances combined with intelligent applications were the driving force of manufacturing innovation. Since 2010, we have seen the rise of cyber-physical production systems (CPPS), which are based on hyper-interconnectivity of processes and distribution, and a mastery of the micro and nano scale for extremely precise production with a variety of materials—often leading to hybrid components and products that combine various production methods and materials.
This recent development, which Enz and Despont call “industry 4.0”, poses many questions—but also offers many opportunities—for Swiss industry, since the tradition of micro and electrical engineering in Switzerland is well suited to the advantages of augmented manufacturing: customization, high-quality/low-volume production, high-precision monitoring for digital manufacturing, and integrated metrology.
But what are the emerging technologies that allow for this seismic shift in manufacturing techniques? The arrival of new materials that permit both an additive and a subtractive process at very small sizes is perhaps the biggest contributor. Then technologies such as laser sintering, two-photon polymerization, and stereo-lithography take advantage of the properties of silicon, inks, and powders to rapidly produce high-quality prototypes.
One of the most important take-aways from the CSEM Business Day World Café on Augmented Manufacturing was the importance of tuning the entire process—from pre-processing through post-processing. Pre-processing allows for layer-on-layer, 3-D production and combining different materials. And even though additive and laser machining is still lacking in precision, the inclusion of in situ monitoring during production and of improved post-processing techniques could increase accuracy.
The biggest challenge facing augmented manufacturing as a viable business model is perhaps the shift away from traditional manufacturing’s high-volume-to-low-cost ratio and toward a personalized approach with a quick time-to-market. One solution proposed was to be able to simplify the distribution grid by easily sharing standardized files and establishing standardized production so as to produce components and products where they can be more easily distributed to customers. This would reduce distribution costs, and would entail a highly agile distribution chain. Yet it is doubtful that even this solution would reduce the cost of these highly personalized items, and consumers would have to be ready to pay more in return for greater customization.
While augmented manufacturing will remain a more expensive option in the immediate future, it does minimize energetic and material waste. Current manufacturing costs do not include this: the true price of mass production and distribution—a borrowed credit that will have to be paid back by future generations. The move toward local production and distribution, and the reduction in material waste that augmented manufacturing promises, might be the ecological and economic solution to the disastrous current environmental impact of much of today’s manufacturing model.
In the end, augmented manufacturing and processing technologies, the use of new materials, and nanotechnologies are key features that enhance the attractiveness of a particular device. These new techniques make radically new devices possible, and this will have a significant impact on industrial competitiveness, job creation, the environment, and growth.