Tech Promises: Booms and Busts

January 4, 2007

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On the technology front, a number of trends that had their beginnings several years earlier played out in significant ways for manufacturers and engineers this past year. Let's look at a few standouts, whether because they made major gains toward fulfilling their promise or because they were such disappointments.

CAD Computer-aided design helps engineers bring their creative concepts to life, of course. And this past year saw no shortage of stand-out CAD products.

Honored as one of IndustryWeek's "Technologies of the Year," the SolidWorks 2007 software rectifies delays because the company "set about getting CAD software to think rather than simply act." The CAD software includes SolidWorks Intelligent Feature Technology (SWIFT), which enables users to focus on the product design rather than the steps to complete it, according to the company.

Meanwhile, Cadalyst Management's Cadalyst Labs also honored the year's "best of the best" CAD products, three of which were as follows:

TurboCAD's Professional v12, which offers "substantial improvements, including moving to the ACIS 15 modeling kernel (from 12)"; • Pinion Software's Pinion Desktop Packager, which offers multilevel protection for design files by encrypting a copy of the original design file, easy installation and use, and application characteristics that are well suited for small to midsized businesses; and • Autodesk's Inventor 11, which includes the so-called "Functional Design," a knowledge-content tool set that "represents a movement from geometric descriptions to rudimentary knowledge capture."

SOA SOFTWARE In software, the new service-oriented architecture concept inched toward acceptance as manufacturers sought to develop solid business cases for adoption. Indeed, 2006 was a busy one for SOA proponents, as many such architectures moved from the pilot stages to live deployments, as ZDNet recently noted. A number of companies have been able to demonstrate value from their SOA efforts:

Harley Davidson's credit and loan organization used SOA to break up its tightly coupled financial systems to be able to change any one of the systems without having to touch every one of them; • eBay employs SOA as a software-based integration tier to manage more than two petabytes of data — or "200 times the size of the Library of Congress"; and • Hewlett Packard implemented an SOA that has seen up to $70 million in savings. HP says the initial paybacks from SOA came through consolidation, reduction of redundancy and reuse across services.

FACTORY DATA INTEGRATION Automation vendors took important steps toward linking their plant floor systems to enterprise business systems. In April, for example, Invensys introduced InFusion, described as an enterprise control system.

Also in 2006, Rockwell Software began rolling out key elements of its FactoryTalk software suite, which converts factory data to business knowledge. The premise for FactoryTalk is that data integration is a critical production-floor issue that offers substantial competitive benefits. With SOA, FactoryTalk provides users with the common set of software services that span an entire manufacturing application, which simplifies the user's experience by eliminating the need to write and test services multiple times for each application.

The result, says Rockwell Software's Matthew Bauer, director of commercial marketing, "is more efficient data sharing, easier integration and faster setup." The suite was also one of IndustryWeek's "Technologies of the Year."

ROBOTS As with most of 2006, robotic sales figures released in November were sluggish. Shipments to the automotive industry dropped by about half compared with 2005, driving overall sales down by more than a third, according to the Robotic Industries Association. Sales outside the auto industry were somewhat flat, declining only 3 percent.

However, the robotics industry has been moving to reduce its reliance on automotive. Looking further back in '06, to the first quarter, North American sales of robots to non-automotive industries — such as food, consumer goods, pharmaceuticals and life sciences — increased 10 percent.

In May, Frost & Sullivan predicted new markets that present numerous opportunities for robotics makers in Europe. Said the research firm:

The booming packaging industry specifically in respect to the consumer markets offers immense potential for robotics. Changing product types and varying product volumes necessitate flexible automation solutions. Manufacturers in consumer markets are opening up to the idea of investing in robots to reduce costs and maintain quality, thereby boosting sales of robotics in the packaging market.

According to ASSEMBLY magazine's State of the Profession 2006 in early August, robotics is most popular in the plastics and rubber products industry, where 53 percent of respondents claimed they will use the technology in their plants during the next 12 months.

Respondents who are using flexible manufacturing to remain competitive plan to invest heavily in robotics. Roland Berger Strategy Consultants has said, "manufacturers in the U.S. only use 63 robots per every 10,000 employees versus 148 robots per 10,000 workers in Germany." Those figures pale in comparison to Japan, where there are three times as many robotic applications as in North America.

WIRELESS Although the industrial wireless market is by no means new (Wireless-based technology has been used in industry for years.), wireless links today are faster, more economical, more secure and more transparent than ever before.

The major trend in the market, however, has been the growth through incorporation of new wireless technologies. Wireless technology is "poised to change plant operations in a revolutionary way — particularly in the area of wireless networks and wireless sensor networks," Plant Engineering noted in July.

There are a number of factors driving wireless as an emerging technology today in manufacturing automation. Foremost, manufacturers see wireless technologies as an enabler of entirely new business processes that will not only be less expensive, but "will be safer, more reliable, and far more transparent than their current manufacturing practices," ARC Advisory Group Senior Analyst Harry Forbes said in August.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to adopt wireless technology is cost. "Using wireless systems for applications that would otherwise require wires dramatically decreases installation time and the exponentially escalating cost of materials and labor," reported Plant Engineering.

As such, wireless network technology has been particularly popular with smaller manufacturers, according to ASSEMBLY magazine's August-released State of the Profession 2006. Almost one-half (48 percent) of respondents at small manufacturers claim they will implement wireless systems in their plants during the next 12 months versus 40 percent of respondents at large manufacturers. Manufacturers in the fabricated metal products industry (46 percent) expressed the most interest in wireless systems.

The ARC Advisory Group, in its "Wireless Technology in Process Manufacturing" report in August, forecasted the worldwide market for wireless technology in manufacturing to grow from $325.7 million in 2005 to more than $1 billion in 2010. And earlier this year, the National Manufacturing Week show in Rosemont, Ill., spotlighted wireless technologies — from RFID to 802.11 — among top IT issues.

Then there is RFID, which, considering the hype every year, at least appears to have been the non-story of the year, as it continued to move more slowly than anticipated as manufacturers struggled with ROI issues. Then again, appearances can be deceiving. (See "Non-Story of the Year: RFID")

R&D magazine readers also recently selected the "hot technologies" for 2007: 1) nanotechnology/NEMS (nanoelectromechanical systems); 2) anti-bioterrorism devices; and 3) battery/chemical energy. Moreover, energy issues drove many of the selected technologies. R&D readers noted the value that nuclear energy may have in its impact on the overall rise of energy costs and continued its rise notably. Solar/wind power ranked No. 5 in the reader survey. The time it will take for these hot technologies to become commercially viable is another matter.

See also:

Technologies Of The Year — Powering Machine Tools

Technologies Of The Year — Notable Innovations

Technologies Of The Year — The 2006 Honorable Mentions

Top Five Nanotech Breakthroughs Of 2006

Manufacturers And Technology: Eight Trends To Watch In 2007


Technologies Of The Year — Demystifying CAD by Traci Purdum IndustryWeek, Dec. 1, 2006

Cadalyst Labs Review: Shining Stars by Ron LaFon Cadalyst, Dec. 1, 2006

Ten companies where SOA made a difference in 2006 by Joe McKendrick ZDNet, Dec. 17, 2006

Technologies Of The Year — Integrating Factory Data by John Teresko IndustryWeek, Dec. 1, 2006

New Markets Present Unprecedented Opportunities For Robotics Manufacturers PRNewswire, May 4, 2006

A Brave New World: State of the Profession 2006 by Austin Weber ASSEMBLY, Aug. 1, 2006

Wireless: New tools, strategies change how plants are monitored by Jack Smith Plant Engineering, July 1, 2006

Wireless Technology in Manufacturing to Grow 26 percent Annually, Says ARC Advisory Group ARC Advisory Group, Aug. 21, 2006

R&D's Hot Tech for 2007 by Tim Studt R&D, December 2006

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