A paradigm shift in manufacturing with benefits for many

Mass production. That is the way of manufacturing in the world today. Large factories manufacture goods in large quantities and then ship them out globally to sellers and eventually, the products reach end-users. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on this process as personal protective equipment (PPE) went out of stock and back-ordered, and other necessary equipment needed during the crisis was in short supply.

Networked systems linking producers to consumers Massively distributed manufacturing uses a cyber-physical operating system and articial intelligence tools to connect and coordinate consumers with producers. Producers in micromanufacturing units can use three-dimensional (3D) printing to fabricate customized products. Smart logistics such as drones and ride-share services enable the physical product delivery.
Reprinted from C Okwudire and H Madhyastha, Science 372, 341 (2021); Graphic: C. Bickel.

In comes massively distributed manufacturing (MDM). This concept of manufacturing uses two key methods, distributed manufacturing, and democratized manufacturing. Distributed manufacturing allows for geographically dispersed production, often at small scales and near the end-user. Democratization enables large populations to engage in manufacturing. Combining these creates MDM, a type of manufacturing able to help the economy, aid in a more sustainable industry, and be more flexible in times of need. 

Associate professor, Chinedum Okwudire, released a new article in Science Magazine, entitled, “Distributed manufacturing for and by the masses” describing how MDM can be beneficial in many ways and how we have seen it work already. Okwudire explains, “It could create lots of jobs through the gig economy, like Uber and Lyft; reduce greenhouse gas emission from the transportation of goods over long distances, and improve the resilience of manufacturing during emergencies like COVID.” 

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution begins, MDM offers a way to employ more informally trained manufacturers in an era where technologies are growing. “The future is one that we are shaping. I see at least two directions. One where robots take over and there is little or no room for humans and another where we involve robots and humans in a symbiotic manner. Our work is trying to advocate for and enable the latter,” says Okwudire.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many with 3D printers and other means were seen building and producing necessary PPE and other equipment needed when regular stocks ran out. In this example we saw how a connected network of people can be employed closer to the end-users, creating custom items for the users' needs, and delivering it to them in a shorter time frame. 

This type of manufacturing is not a solution for all products but it can be for many. So what can companies do to start working towards this model? Okwudire says, “They can start leveraging networking to connect their manufacturing systems so that they can easily participate in such a future system.”

Read more about MDM, building a network of manufacturers, and more in Science Magazine.

 

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