ENGINEERING NEWS

Three Factors Signaling a New Manufacturing Revolution

Faculty fellow and energy expert Mark Mills spoke to the Northwestern community as part of the Dean’s Seminar Series on April 11

Mark Mills discusses the potential for a new US manufacturing revolution on April 11.

Northwestern Engineering faculty fellow Mark Mills doesn’t view the Industrial Revolution as the result of a single cause. Rather, he considers it a confluence of three separate technological and scientific transformations that matured at just the right time to spark the 20th century manufacturing economy:

  • The availability of public utilities like electricity that allowed manufacturers to control mass production practices
  • The rise of new classes of machines that offered innovative ways to bend and change metals and other materials to make goods
  • The introduction of new types of materials to manufacture goods as a result of the burgeoning field of chemistry

Founder and CEO of the tech-centric capital advisory group Digital Capital Power and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Mills used this framework to make his case for why the United States is amidst a new manufacturing revolution that promises to change our lives.

His talk, “Manufacturing as a Service: The Emerging Revolutions in How and What We Produce,” took place on April 11 as part of Northwestern Engineering’s Dean’s Seminar Series.

Mass Production in Cloud Computing

The availability of electricity at the outset of the Industrial Revolution relieved manufacturers of the burden of generating their own power and allowed them to exercise greater control in producing goods. Mills believes that today’s manufacturers are experiencing that same phenomenon through the rise of cloud computing. “Utility computing” has brought inexpensive supercomputing capacity to businesses all sizes.

“With the advent of utility electricity during the Industrial Revolution, factories no longer needed to run their own power on site,” Mills said. “Similarly, the rise of cloud computing has removed the need for companies to manage their own computer rooms and data centers. It’s an astonishing change.”

Mills added that the Internet of Things will dramatically change communication, connecting tens of billions of electronic devices each year and streamlining control over the manufacturing process in ways not seen before.

“When we moved from landline telephony to cellular phones, we went from hundreds of millions of connections to billions. The scale was a big deal,” Mills said. “The number of machines and interstitial components wirelessly interconnected due to the Internet of Things will be in the trillions. The entire manufacturing process will become more connected with each passing year.”

From Machines to Lasers

A mass production line in the early 20th century would not be effective if workers had only a hammer and chisel to use, which is why the development of milling machines to bend and change metals was instrumental in allowing manufacturers to mass produce goods during the Industrial Revolution.

Mills explained that today’s machines are also undergoing noteworthy advancements, with lasers making the biggest impact. Last year marked the first time that more industrial lasers were shipped into the market to cut and drill materials than traditional mechanical alternatives. Mills thinks that lasers are opening up even more new manufacturing capacities that traditional milling machines can’t achieve.

Mills also touched on the growing role of collaborative robots, or “cobots,” as a way machines are symbiotically working with humans to enhance the manufacturing process. Mills believes the decrease in computing cost over time has made the assistive technology, developed by Northwestern Engineering Professors J. Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin, a widespread, commercial prospect for manufacturers.

“It was a big deal when we invented the hammer and the knife because it allowed us to amplify our mechanical skills,” Mills said. “We can now begin to think about cobots as a way to amplify human potential. Not to replace people, but to amplify them.”

A Materials Revolution in Medicine

The arrival of chemistry as a discipline in the early 1900s signaled a profound shift in what could be invented. For the first time, chemists could engineer molecules to create new classes of materials, like plastics, which helped jumpstart the manufacturing of goods during the Industrial Revolution.

Mills argued that chemical engineering has undergone its own “quiet revolution” today that has introduced new classes of materials in the field of bioelectronics, from transient electronic medical patches that naturally dissolve in the body to tiny “electroceutical” devices that can be implanted in the human body to treat diseases.

Mills recognized Northwestern University Professor John A. Rogers as a pioneer in bioelectronics, a field he said is on the precipice of exploding the same way silicon did in the late 1960s.

“Imagine the scale of the manufacturing industry that would be needed to make biocompatible sensors that are voluntarily attached to every organ on every human being on the planet,” Mills said. “It’s not a crazy idea anymore.”

A Hopeful Future

Mills offered a positive outlook on what he envisions could be a new US manufacturing revolution.

“The convergence of these three domains will drive growth greater than what was experienced during the Industrial Revolution,” Mills said. “This is not an independent revolution — all revolutions build on what came previously. The potential for growth in the American economy is astonishing.”