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Making manufacturing more simple

Making manufacturing more simple

Wired magazine has an interesting article today, about how a design student designed a bicycle powered lampshade maker.

While lampshades are hardly cutting edge technology, the article focuses on how the difference in today’s very fast and complex manufacturing automation, and the possibility of more energy friendly (although slower) processes.

When I look at an automation process, many times the needed machinery is much more complex than originally thought.  A human regards a task of picking up an object and placing it in another location as a simple and mind-numbing task.  When looking at the equipment necessary to replicate this, it is staggering how much design and control is needed to replicate the human motion.

To replicate the possible motions of a human arm (just one arm), a minimum of 6 motors are needed, all working perfectly in tandem, with incredibly accurate positioning.  There will need to be a dedicated CPU, and a drive for each motor.  To pick up an object weighing a mere 5 lbs, the equipment cost could easily be in the 10’s of thousands of dollars, and to integrate all the parts into a working system could cost just as much.

What is really going on with the bicycle?  Is it really an automated manufacturing process (as the article suggests)?  I would say no, it is just using a bicycle to spin a mold, a human must still load the mold with the liquid base, and remove the finished lampshade 40 minutes later.  If a person had a daily 40+ minute bicycle commute, I could see them starting a lampshade business on the side, they could make 2 per day (that’s a get rich quick scheme if I’ve ever seen one).

The direction automation technology needs to go is not the path of the ‘Peak Hipster’ in the article, but instead into the realm of approach-ability for the average person.  By this I mean using proven industrial automation, but utilizing advanced human-machine interfacing to allow the average user to design their own manufacturing cell, instead of relying on very expensive consulting.   When this happens, I think you’ll see former assembly line workers suddenly becoming manufacturing automation designers, using their experience in the human assembly process to design machinery to do the same thing.