Ten Forces That Shaped Assembly

September 28, 2007
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During the last 50 years, ASSEMBLY magazine has witnessed numerous events, trends and issues that have dramatically changed the face of American manufacturing. To celebrate ASSEMBLY's golden anniversary, we have identified 10 mega trends that, for better or worse, have shaped today's manufacturing landscape and will continue to shape the future.



During the last 50 years, ASSEMBLY magazine has witnessed numerous events, trends and issues that have dramatically changed the face of American manufacturing. They transformed the way that parts are put together; altered the layout, form and function of assembly lines; and influenced the role that engineers play in the entire process.

Many things people take for granted today, such as bar codes, DC electric tools and laser welding, did not exist in the late 1950s. Other tools, such as computers and robots, were just emerging and have evolved over the last 5 decades.

One of the most foretelling issues of ASSEMBLY was published in 1961. As readers perused the August issue, few people probably realized that it contained two articles about technology that would create massive paradigm shifts in manufacturing: Computers and robots. Remarkably, the articles appeared on consecutive pages in the magazine. Within several decades, robots would be a common sight on computerized assembly lines.

Other changes have been more subtle, but equally profound. For instance, many companies began relaxing strict dress codes in the 1980s by first adopting casual Fridays. When that happened, engineers were able to shed their ties, which often created a safety hazard on the plant floor. The loosening of dress codes also helped engineers interact more easily with operators by breaking down traditional “us vs. them” barriers, which helped pave the way for lean manufacturing initiatives.

To celebrate ASSEMBLY’s golden anniversary, we have identified 10 mega trends that, for better or worse, have shaped today’s manufacturing landscape. They’re ranked chronologically, not in order of importance. Many of the forces are interconnected and continue to play off of each other.

For instance, globalization is spurring increased activity in the aerospace industry, which in turn is using plastic composite materials to reduce weight and improve operating efficiency. Globalization is also putting pressure on companies to streamline supply chains and implement state-of-the-art automation.

It’s hard to predict what may happen in the future. But, when you step back and see where we’ve been yesterday, it’s easier to get a glimpse of where we may be headed tomorrow. Many of these same 10 forces will continue to converge and evolve as the next 50 years of assembly unfold.



1. The Space Race

When ASSEMBLY debuted, aerospace was the largest manufacturing industry in the world and it was based in the United States. Manufacturers were busy churning out bigger, faster, quicker and lighter products for a wide range of military and commercial applications.

While most people take flying for granted today, it was still considered a novelty 50 years ago. Railroads shuttled millions of people between major U.S. cities and the interstate highway system had not been built. Ocean liners were the way most folks crossed either the Atlantic or the Pacific.

But, a strange thing occurred in 1958: More than 1 million passengers flew across the Atlantic, for the first time surpassing the total of steamship passengers. Boeing Co. (Chicago) had just unveiled its revolutionary 707 jetliner. Meanwhile, Boeing’s biggest competitor, Douglas Aircraft Co., was building its own 4-engine jetliner called the DC-8. Both aircraft transformed the airline industry and made flying faster, easier and more popular.

Today, airline travel is a controversial subject with heated debates over comfort, safety, security and flight delays. Meanwhile, Boeing and Douglas are no longer competitors. Douglas merged with McDonnell Aircraft Corp. in 1967 to create McDonnell Douglas, which in turn was acquired by Boeing in 1997.

When the first issue of ASSEMBLY, then known as Assembly & Fastener Engineering, was rolling off the printing presses, the United States was also embarking on a bold new adventure: Space exploration.

In fact, during the same month that ASSEMBLY debuted, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created in response to Russia’s recent launch of a small satellite called Sputnik. That marked the beginning of the Space Race, an era in which billions of dollars were poured into developing new materials and advanced production processes.

An article in the November 1958 issue of ASSEMBLY proclaimed that “many of the old methods of fastening have become obsolete with the advent of the air and space age.” Many of the things that engineers take for granted today were developed during this era.

For instance, clean room methods and tools commonly used to make electronics and medical devices were pioneered by the U.S. space program. And cordless fastening tool technology developed by NASA in the early 1960s is a common sight on contemporary assembly lines.

The first issue of ASSEMBLY re-flected the space age sentiment. It included several news items with headlines such as: “Recoverable supersonic target missile cheers taxpayers,” “Radio telescope to probe space secrets” and “New missile parts plant to be hospital operating-room clean.”

A feature article proclaimed: “The Missiles-Age Hurls a Challenge at Us . . . Product Reliability.” It explained how the new Atlas intercontinental missile had 300,000 separate components. The author claimed that “the high reliability factor is not only a cornerstone to national defense, but a springboard to future consumer conveniences and the technological advances leading to a high standard of living.”

During a famous speech in Houston on Sept. 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade . . . .” Those words launched an aggressive space program that culminated with the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.

As the 1960s progressed, ASSEMBLY chronicled many developments and innovations, including the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs. The lunar module triumphantly appeared on the August 1969 cover to celebrate the first moon landing.

An editorial in that issue applauded the manufacturing and engineering community for the massive effort that made the Apollo 11 mission possible. “In all, some 15 million parts had to perform their intended functions flawlessly under the most rigorous conditions,” it proclaimed. “But, we are only at the doorstep in the exploration of outer space and interplanetary travel-there are many discoveries as well as accomplishments to be made.”

Over the last 50 years, the aerospace industry has continually pushed the envelope. ASSEMBLY has continuously published many developments in new materials and joining methods, such as adhesives, brazing, composites, lasers, riveting and ultrasonic welding.

Today, the aerospace industry is in the midst of another boom, and it will continue to drive manufacturing advancements well into the future. Between now and 2016, the Teal Group Corp. (Fairfax, VA) predicts that 44,364 aircraft worth $1.3 trillion will be built worldwide, which is a 28 percent increase over the last 10-year period.

According to Richard Aboulafia, Teal’s senior aircraft analyst, several factors will propel that robust growth. For instance, while the industry has historically been driven by military applications, that may change in the future.

“Military aircraft are becoming less important as value migrates toward net-centric systems and sensors,” says Aboulafia. “Military aircraft are becoming mere nodes in much larger and more capable defense architectures. Actual aircraft performance matters less, and off-board sensors and weapons matter more.”

Most military aircraft production in the future will focus on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). However, near term, Aboulafia predicts they will remain “fraught with the problems and delays typical with technological innovation. Tactical UAVs need significant improvements in reliability, durability and data-link dependability before they will be regarded as an integral element of military force structure, and not just another curious experimental toy.”

While there are still a number of unanswered questions about the nature of UAVs, they hold tremendous promise outside military and security applications. For instance, the technology will eventually be used for unmanned cargo planes. And, it will trickle down to other peaceful applications.

Within the next 50 years, tractors, combines and other farm equipment will be operated with robotic, autonomous systems. And, once a smart road infrastructure is built in the United States, the long-haul trucking industry will adopt UAV technology to address its recurring driver shortage problem.

Future engineers will be focusing their attention on blended wing-body airframes and very high-bypass propulsion systems that will result in quieter, more fuel-efficient aircraft. Those designs may feature flexible wings and morphing airframes that change shape in-flight. Shape-changing wings will provide adaptable aerodynamics and greater fuel economy. And, future aircraft may be controlled using new techniques, such as plasma and electromagnetic pulses.

No matter what future aircraft look like, there’s a good chance that they will be assembled out of more composite parts than ever. “Composites are increasingly transforming aircraft manufacture,” says Aboulafia, who believes the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 jetliners represent “the wave of the future. As they enter service, any remaining reluctance [to use composites] will disappear and composite primary structures will become the standard.”

Aviation has always been a haven for private entrepreneurs and innovators eager to push the envelope. One of those visionaries is Joe Feord, director of sales and marketing at Munro & Associates Inc. (Troy, MI), a lean manufacturing consulting firm. He and his colleagues recently developed a personal air vehicle that they believe will revolutionize general aviation.

The Paradigm is a four-passenger aircraft that is currently undergoing field tests. It uses advanced automation and navigation systems, such as laser guidance and tilt angle sensors, to allow the plane to take off, fly and land on its own without a pilot.

“Our goal is a plane that requires an operator, not a pilot,” says Feord. “The plane would appeal to people who don’t necessarily have a pilot’s license. It would improve safety and reduce training at the same time.”

The Paradigm design also adapts automotive manufacturing technology to permit volume production, while keeping complexity low and reliability high. “Technology transfer is the key to bringing cost down and quality up,” explains Feord. For instance, the Paradigm uses a long shaft pusher configuration with a tail-ducted, seven-bladed variable-pitch propeller to lower noise. It features an unmodified V-8 aluminum block auto engine and a carbon fiber driveshaft that is dynamically balanced.

Feord hopes to start mass-producing the aircraft sometime within the next 3 to 5 years. The Paradigm would also use new assembly technology, such as laser weld bonding, which could be automated with robotics. In addition to eliminating the use of rivets, Feord says laser weld bonding would provide a 15 percent stiffer structure. At the same time, he believes it will reduce assembly costs by 41 percent.

When ASSEMBLY first appeared 50 years ago, people were drooling about a fantastic future that would be filled with flying cars. Today, they’re still just a dream, but flying cars are becoming more fact than fiction. For example, Terrafugia Inc. (Cambridge, MA) intends to have “the first truly practical roadable aircraft” commercially available in 3 years, and Moller International Inc. (Davis, CA) plans to have its long-awaited Skycar ready to go around the same time.

Although some observers claim that flying cars are total nonsense, others predict they will definitely become a reality within the next 50 years, especially if air traffic management systems are improved with advanced guidance tools, such as global positioning satellite technology, to create safe “highways in the sky.”

“We need to develop a point-to-point distributed network to alleviate congestion and open up access to hundreds of underused airstrips around the United States,” says Feord, a former airline captain. “The current system that the Federal Aviation Administration uses is quite antiquated; it’s like they’re still using switchboard operators.”

No matter what happens on earth, the vast horizons of outer space will definitely become more congested in the future. “Forty years ago, we were in a space race exclusively with the Soviet Union,” says John Douglass, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association (Arlington, VA). “Now, we’re in a race with Russia, Brazil, India, Japan, China and the European Union across almost every market for civilian and commercial space products.”

China launched its first manned space mission in 2003 and intends to land a person on the moon within the next decade. “The space budgets of China and India are growing faster than NASA’s, in relative terms,” says Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at the Teal Group. “In fact, China may get to the moon before the U.S. ends up there again.”

In 2005, Congress approved ambitious plans to return America to the moon. “The goal is to establish a permanent base on the moon by 2020,” Caceres points out. “That would serve as a stepping stone for a manned mission to Mars, which would occur some time between 2030 and 2040.

“Because of the great distance involved-250 million miles-and the need to protect astronauts against radiation, a journey to Mars will be incredibly difficult,” adds Caceres. “Going to the moon is easy in comparison.”

However, living and working on the moon will present its own difficulties. For instance, lunar dust will pose a huge challenge to future engineers, who will have to find a way to protect bearings, gears, seals and other critical components. Electromagnetic filters and shielding systems will be essential.

Lunar colonists will also require new spacesuits that allow them to move about easily. Moon bases will probably consist of inflatable modules built near the lunar poles, which boast moderate temperatures and plenty of sunlight. Some structures may be buried under the surface of the moon to protect space pioneers from dangerous solar flares.

To help defray the tremendous price tag, NASA hopes to get private enterprise involved in its future space exploration efforts. “We’ll see industry become more of a partner in the future,” says Caceres. “Mining will support the moon base, because the easiest thing to do there is dig.”

Caceres believes the moon may also become an ideal spot for some types of assembly applications. “The advantage of manufacturing in microgravity is significant,” he points out. “A very clean environment would appeal to manufacturers of semiconductors, medical devices and other high-tech products. The expensive part would be the logistics.” Only small, lightweight, high-value products would warrant the expensive back-and-forth transportation.

Private companies will also be involved in space tourism in the future. Caceres expects to see more and more entrepreneurs dabble in space flight. The first step will be to develop modular or inflatable orbiting space stations that can be used as hotels. “Until there’s a place to take people to, there’s no point in space tourism,” says Caceres. “The first space hotels won’t be ready until about 2015.”

Traditionally, space flight has required liquid-fueled rockets, which are expensive and dangerous. However, when ASSEMBLY celebrates its centennial in 2057, people and cargo may routinely travel via space elevators. The space elevator is an earth-to-space transportation system proposed by Dr. Bradley Edwards, a former physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and president of Black Line Ascension LLC (Los Alamos, NM).

According to Edwards, a ribbon made out of carbon nanotubes will extend hundreds of miles into space. A counterweight at the end will keep it taut through centrifugal force. Elevator cars will climb 250 miles to a space station in 30 minutes, using a combination of high-intensity lasers and solar panels.

No matter what happens in the future of aerospace, some things probably won’t change, such as the use of automation on assembly lines. While drilling, riveting and other labor-intense processes have been semiautomated, the industry still depends heavily on teams of operators and mechanics.

“The assembly of an aircraft will never be fully automated by more than 20 percent,” predicts a senior engineer at Boeing. However, composite materials make it easier to automate production. In the past, large aluminum sections of aircraft had to be riveted together by hand. Computer-controlled tape-laying machines now allow manufacturers to make a single piece by winding carbon fiber tape around a large mold.



2. Automation

Traditionally, automation has been feared and loathed by labor unions. In fact, in the late 1950s, the United Auto Workers union even demanded laws to regulate automation to protect workers’ jobs.

Because of automation, worker productivity actually rose by 35 percent between 1945 and 1960. Today, automation is widely embraced by many U.S. workers, who see it as a way for American manufacturers to successfully compete against low-cost labor readily available in Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Slovenia and other countries.

“If we didn’t start using automation 50 years ago, consumers wouldn’t be able to afford the cost of goods today,” says Sal Spada, research director for discrete automation at ARC Advisory Group Inc. (Dedham, MA). “It allows manufacturers to produce high-value goods with low-skilled labor. It’s hard to compete today without introducing automation into your production process.”

The goal of automation has remained constant over the last 50 years: To lower costs, increase yields, decrease cycle times, improve product quality and gain a competitive edge. Because short product life cycles are the rule rather than the exception today, most manufacturers want high-speed assembly equipment capable of repeatable, high-volume production.

The auto industry has always been at the forefront of state-of-the-art assembly automation. In fact, an engineer at Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, MI) coined the term “automation” just a few years before the first issue of ASSEMBLY appeared. Ford’s Cleveland Engine Plant was the first factory built for extensive use of automation, which reduced direct labor minutes by 49 percent and required 17 percent less floor space than traditional assembly methods.

In the postwar era, the scarcity of labor, the rise in real wages and high consumer demand encouraged manufacturers to experiment with compressed air, hydraulic power and electrical devices to automate production equipment. Many of those devices were run by a hard-wired control panel of telephone-type relays.

Early articles in ASSEMBLY touted the benefits of automation. For instance, a feature in the March 1965 issue proclaimed that “many of the problems involved in automating parts making operations have already been solved. But, the surface has been only barely scratched in automating assembly operations.”

The development of programmable automation in the late 1960s provided a major impetus for manufacturers to invest in automated assembly lines. “It lowered the cost of deploying automation,” explains Spada.

The first programmable logic controller (PLC) was introduced by General Motors Corp. (GM, Detroit) and was quickly adapted by other automakers to control equipment. It allowed manufacturing engineers to replace hard-wired relay systems with electronic devices. The first PLC application occurred in 1969 at GM’s Hydra-Matic transmission plant in Ypsilanti, MI.

Over the years, PLCs have become smaller, smarter, faster, cheaper and easier to use. Today, PLCs are accepting more responsibility for managing the assembly line. High-end controllers can now provide motion control, interface with vision systems, collect high-speed measurement data and communicate with enterprise networks. In fact, high-end PLCs are doing so much more that they’ve even got a new name-programmable automation controllers.

The good old PLC is expected to remain the backbone of manufacturing in the near future. “Manufacturers will continually face challenges to raise productivity, lower product costs, reduce plant operating costs and increase return on investment in order to compete in the global market,” says Himanshu Shah, a senior analyst at ARC Advisory Group. “Applications for PLCs are also driven by crucial factors such as energy savings, condition monitoring, safety, collaborative manufacturing, and real-time optimization strategies that are key to an end user’s competitive strength and growth.”

The “factory of the future” concept of state-of-the-art manufacturing has always intrigued every generation of manufacturing engineers. Jaws dropped when GM opened its new Lordstown, OH, plant in June 1970. Thanks to computer-controlled automation, it boasted the fastest assembly lines in the world.

More than 90 percent of body welding operations were automated vs. 20 percent to 40 percent at older facilities. The new factory could assemble more than 100 vehicles per hour vs. 55 to 60 cars at other auto plants. While automation was hailed as a success at Lordstown, the plant quickly became a hotbed of labor unrest. Multiple work stoppages culminated in a bitter strike.

A decade later, when ASSEMBLY celebrated its 25th anniversary, General Electric Corp. (Fairfield, CT) initiated a massive factory automation program aimed at reducing costs and improving quality. An article in the December 1982 issue explained how the world’s most diverse manufacturing company invested more than $2 billion in automation. That was more than a decade before GE became famous for embracing the Six Sigma management philosophy.

General Electric invested $38 million to renovate its dishwasher factory in Louisville, KY. “When it begins operations soon, many parts will go through the factory touched only by robots,” the article pointed out. “They will get 20 percent more dishwashers from 20 percent less floor space with 40 percent less scrap and rework.

“Sitting in front of three video displays and computer keyboards, a single operator has complete command of the dishwasher manufacturing system. Computerized control systems track each major component in the system, providing real time inventory status. In addition, the displays give a continuous indication of the condition of all automatic equipment-from robots to automatic assembly machines.”

Several GE executives called the effort “a renaissance in American industrial productivity through factory automation. Automation is helping us to provide a better quality product with maximum reliability for our customers.

“Building a major, totally automated factory and making it work efficiently and profitably has been described as more difficult technologically than the project to land a man on the moon. Man has walked on the moon, but never in a totally automated plant.”

During the last 25 years, the cost of deploying automation has dropped. And, as products have become smaller and smaller over the years, many manufacturers have been forced to automate their assembly lines. At the same time, advancements in programmable motion, digital servomotors, remote diagnostics, high-speed digital servo networks, smart sensors and other devices have improved automation.

“Global manufacturers are implementing strategies to meet the challenges of the ‘flat world,’” says Shah. “The need to act quickly and with agility to emerging market opportunities, increasing pressure to improve financial performance, and globalization are driving manufacturers to use more automation.”

In the future, digital factories will feature smaller, more compact assembly lines. Manufacturing engineers will plan and control all production processes virtually.

“The ultimate goal is to have digitally reconfigured assembly lines,” explains Spada. “There will be no need to reprogram individual machines for product changeovers. Engineers will just download digital specifications.”

“The large, centralized production plant is a thing of the past,” says Jim Pinto, an automation consultant based in San Diego. “The factory of the future will be small, movable to where the resources are and where the customers are.” As a result, there will be no need to transport raw materials long distances to a plant for processing, and then transport the resulting product long distances to the consumer.

In the future, automation will be seamlessly integrated with parts, production processes, products and people. Everything will be connected with wireless networks that eliminate expensive wire and cable, while improving flexibility. Sensor-based advanced diagnostics, such as acoustic-emission sensors, will also play an important role in tomorrow’s factories, eliminating pesky maintenance challenges.

Maxim Foursa, project manager of the virtual environments department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems (Sankt Augustin, Germany), envisions a factory of the future where production runs like clockwork. In that scenario, he says “products are manufactured quickly and efficiently, any errors in the process are displayed automatically together with their causes, the machines report of their own accord when they need servicing, and the production facilities are cheaper to maintain.”

According to Foursa, a “smart connected control platform” will make it all possible. Cameras, sensors and other smart components will monitor and analyze production processes, and instantly respond to any problems. The system will “automatically adapt the respective processes and report any changes that are necessary on the assembly lines,” says Foursa. “No programming [will be] needed, regardless whether the shape is to be made round instead of square, the color a deeper shade or the material harder.”

Faster and faster innovation will quicken the pace of tomorrow’s manufacturing environment, resulting in more new products with more variations than ever. To keep pace, manufacturers will demand flexible automation that can accommodate build-to-order production strategies and be adaptable to ever-changing production configurations.

“Instead of building new factories to manufacture a new product or introduce a new technology, companies will build factories for a product family and simply upgrade or reconfigure these existing factories with new capabilities,” claims Galip Ulsoy, director of the Engineering Research Center for Reconfigurable Manufacturing Systems at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI).

“Reconfigurable factories will reduce product development time and give manufacturers a greater ability to switch production between different products,” predicts Ulsoy. “Manufacturers will be able to offer consumers more choices in less time and for less money.”



3. Computers

Computers and ASSEMBLY grew up together. When the magazine first appeared, computers took up entire rooms and even entire buildings. For instance, in 1958, IBM built the AN/FSQ-7, which consisted of two complete Whirlwind II computers installed in a 4-story building. The 275-ton, $238 million machine required an army of 60 employees for round-the-clock maintenance, such as replacing several hundred vacuum tubes that failed each day or tending to finicky punch cards.

Fortunately, computers have been shrinking in size and cost, while growing in power and speed, over the last 50 years. Today, the typical desktop machine has 10-times the power of the world’s fastest computer 25 years ago.

That was something many people considered science fiction when ASSEMBLY debuted. Even though most early computer applications were used for military applications, engineers were fascinated by the possibilities for manufacturing.

For instance, an article in the October 1961 issue described a “completely computer-controlled process for making deposited resistors. The block-long array is believed to constitute the first completely automated process for the assembly of a discrete electronic component. The heart of the control equipment is a digital computer with a 4096 word magnetic drum memory.” Engineers at Western Electric Co. used the computerized system to program production control and perform statistical quality control to detect any variation in accepted tolerances.

Throughout the 1960s, other manufacturers experimented with computers. By 1966, ASSEMBLY was publishing numerous articles on the topic and declared that “although a considerable amount of work remains to be done, the trend toward the computerized factory has been well established.”

In the May issue, a professor of production management in the graduate school of business at Columbia University (New York) warned readers that “factory operations are in the midst of rapid evolutionary change. Management and manufacturing systems in the years ahead will become increasingly complex. The key for unlocking the door to the factory of the future is management science and the computer.”

In May and June 1966, the manager of IBM’s Poughkeepsie, NY, factory explained how computers could improve efficiency on the plant floor. He claimed that “computers are becoming much more closely linked with both engineering and manufacturing.” The plant used state-of-the-art computerized manufacturing to design and produce the circuit boards used in IBM’s popular System/360 mainframe.

An article in ASSEMBLY just a few months later was entitled “How to Get Along With a Computer.” It explained why computers are vital “tools that can play an important part in helping solve problems and lower costs. The advent of computerized systems offers assembly managers, supervisors and foremen an excellent opportunity to improve their operations greatly.”

Most early assembly applications for computers were in the aerospace industry, supporting the space program. Several ASSEMBLY articles talked about how manufacturers were using computers to cost-effectively produce labels and print work instructions for complex wiring harnesses.

An article in the June 1967 issue explained how computers helped keep tabs on the mind-boggling operations involved in assembling NASA’s massive Saturn launch vehicles. For instance, variable assembly sequencing was developed to track more than 2,400 components used in the instrument unit that helped guide, navigate and control each rocket. Each unit was 3 feet tall and 21 feet in diameter. The article pointed out that the “sequencing coding methods for identifying mating and gating parts makes it possible to see the overall relationships of all the parts and assemblies required.”

The auto industry was another early proponent of the game-changing power of computers. At its futuristic Lordstown plant, GM used computers to simplify assembly line operations for greater efficiency and accuracy. A computerized system was used to balance workloads along the assembly lines that built the innovative Vega sedan.

“The system allows individual operators enough time to do a job properly, which minimizes line disruptions and out-of-station repairs,” reported an October 1970 article in ASSEMBLY. “When options or model mixes change, the computer can immediately rebalance the line for the new conditions.”

In the late 1960s, minicomputers began to replace large central mainframes in central control rooms and gave rise to distributed control systems. However, Pinto says they were still “relatively large clumps of computer hardware and cabinets filled with input-output connections.”

But, that changed in August 1981, when IBM Corp. unveiled the first personal computer. It came equipped with 16 kilobytes of memory, expandable to 256k.

The PC revolution allowed manufacturers to cost-effectively place computer power at every workstation on the plant floor, making it feasible for engineers to share information and communicate directly with operators. It also let companies capture and track key performance indicators, such as inventory turns, machine down-time and throughput.

Computer monitors began to be a common sight on assembly lines by the mid-1980s. “The popularity of manufacturing workstations and personal computers is based on their availability, low cost and versatility,” noted an article in the November 1986 issue of ASSEMBLY. “The fact that they also liberate users from the data processing departments is an attractive bonus.

“Workstations are becoming not only the eyes and ears of the shop floor, but the brains as well,” added the article. “They allow operators to collect data and see what is happening. Workstations allow line workers to assume control over the actual manufacturing processes, and to make decisions regarding online production changes.”

The advent of PCs also opened the door for new applications, such as computer-assisted design, computer-assisted manufacturing, and design for manufacturing and assembly. In 1982, an article entitled “Design for Producibility-The Road to High Productivity” generated more than 1,000 letters from engineers eager to harness computers.

It was written by a professor at the University of Massachusetts named Geoffrey Boothroyd, who had recently developed a computerized system for rating the efficiency of designs for ease of assembly. The article explained how Xerox Corp. (Stamford, CT) achieved considerable reduction in assembly time by reducing parts count and “improving the assemblability of the remaining parts.”

As engineers became more comfortable with computers, they began to use simulation tools to eliminate production bottlenecks and streamline the assembly process. Digital modeling technology allowed engineers to simulate work flow, parts, tools, assembly lines, operators and production processes.

By 1994, Boeing was able to boast that its new 777 was the first airliner to be developed and preassembled entirely on computers. Although automotive engineers had already designed digital cars without full-size mockups, this was the first time the technology was used on a large scale. Three-dimensional tools allowed engineers to check cross-sections, detect alignment issues and make changes in just hours rather than weeks.

Today, computers allow manufacturers and their suppliers to automatically adjust inventory supply and production flow to meet changing consumer demands. And, they enable engineers to remotely monitor production to track quality, predict problems and fix snags.

The growing proliferation of cheap, flat-panel PCs now allows more and more manufacturers to equip their assembly lines with paperless work instructions, which have been successfully used since the mid-1980s in low-volume, complex operations, such as aerospace and defense manufacturing.

Electronic work instructions improve the flow and control of information. They also eliminate massive amounts of paper. For instance, before implementing an online work instruction system 2 years ago, Boeing Commercial Airplanes printed 60,000 to 80,000 pieces of paper a day.

Because computer technology changes so quickly, it’s hard to peer too far into the future. However, one trend is certain: Computer power will continue to increase, while devices become smaller and easier to use.

Most current research is focusing on how humans interact with computers. In the future, engineers and operators will probably use wearable computers that are ubiquitous and seamlessly blend into the background like wallpaper. Wireless technology, sensors and microchips will be embedded in electronic textiles that are inconspicuous and don’t hinder movement on the assembly line. However, heat dissipation and battery power challenges must first be addressed.

In Minority Report, a popular 2002 movie that is set in the year 2054, the main character operates a computer using hand gestures detected by embedded sensors. That type of scenario is not too far-fetched. In fact, researchers at Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA) have developed a device called GUIDe. The gaze-enhanced user interface design system uses a high-definition camera and infrared light-emitting diodes to allow users to activate a computer simply by looking at a screen.

Automation and computer technology is quickly converging to create a powerful new generation of “smart assembly” tools. “It’s a concept that integrates production processes, people, equipment and information using both real and virtual methods to achieve dramatic improvements in productivity, lead time and agility,” explains ARC’s Spada. “Those companies that [implement] elements of the smart assembly strategy will gain a competitive edge.”

Last year, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST, Gaithersburg, MD) hosted a workshop on smart assembly systems that attracted participants from leading manufacturers, such as Boeing, Caterpillar, General Dynamics, General Motors, Lockheed Martin and Toyota. It focused on how to develop and integrate smart tools, such as feeders, fixtures, robots and fastening equipment, that can address tomorrow’s endless product variety demands and subsequent workstation-level complexity.

“Smart assembly is not just about more automation, mechanization, sensors and optimized control,” notes Dale Hall, director of NIST’s Manufacturing Engineering Laboratory. “It takes a holistic view, and regards people as the most important source of value. It is enabled by a knowledge- and information-intensive manufacturing workforce. Most of the ‘smart’ in smart assembly comes from the people.”

Hall says the goal is to develop a national manufacturing policy that leverages “our traditional strength in information technologies and systems engineering. In the current state of the art, there is a ‘digital divide.’ In the future, virtual models will seamlessly move from the engineering factory to the production floor, and virtual models will be updated to reflect the actual plant floor situation. The virtual model becomes the basis for real-time control, condition monitoring and decision support.”

Boeing is currently using smart assembly principles to develop intelligent tooling. During the NIST workshop, Bryan Dods, senior manager for assembly, integration and test, explained how the aerospace giant is tackling the challenge of “automating the movement of information between digital design tools and production floor systems.”

Engineers at Boeing are using state-of-the-art technology, such as indoor GPS, laser projection, radio frequency identification and smart hand tools. The tools are wirelessly connected. For instance, network-centric operations communicate location and process requirements to the tool.

During operation, the tool communicates actual location and process variables to the network. The network matches “as-defined” to “as-performed” processes to verify and document assembly operations. According to Dods, smart assembly applied to these processes is focused primarily on creating intelligent tooling that no longer requires operators to set limits or torques for a specific operation.

Part 2 of this article will be published next month. It examines how plastics, product liability, robotics and other factors have affected manufacturers yesterday, today and tomorrow. A



10 Forces That Have Shaped Assembly

1. The Space Race.

2. Automation.

3. Computers.

4. Plastics.

5. Robotics.

6. Product Liability.

7. Safety and Ergonomics.

8. Supply Chain Management.

9. Lean Manufacturing.

10. Globalization.

10 Defining Moments

Every so often, an event occurs that defines a generation or distinguishes an era. When ASSEMBLY was first published in October 1958, the magazine promised to be a source of “methods, of ideas, a meeting place of new conceptions and a clearing house of advanced thinking. A magazine to help you and, now and again, to entertain you, and even to prod you, but at all times to have your problems at heart.”

Here are 10 additional key dates that helped alter the shape and scope of manufacturing over the last 50 years. The list is not meant to be exhaustive-in fact, you may disagree with some of them or question why others were left out. Indeed, some events are missing, such as the erection of the Berlin Wall (August 13, 1961) and the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Oct. 14, 1962). Both of those events fueled the Cold War and helped spur numerous advancements in the aerospace and defense industries.



Oct. 1, 1958

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is created by Congress in response to Russia’s recent launch of the Sputnik satellite.



June 13, 1961

George Devol Jr. receives U.S. patent #2,988,237 for a “programmed article transfer,” the world’s first industrial robot.



Jan. 24, 1963

A landmark California court decision, “Greenman vs. Yuba Power Products Inc.,” redefines product liability.



Dec. 29, 1970

President Richard M. Nixon signs the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which creates the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.



Aug. 15, 1977

Solectron Corp. is formed. The company pioneered the concept of contract manufacturing when it assembles an electronic controller for solar energy equipment.



Aug. 12, 1981

IBM Corp. unveils the first personal computer.



Nov. 1, 1982

The first vehicle rolls off the line at Honda's new assembly plant in Marysville, OH.



Oct. 15, 1990

One of the first books to reveal the Toyota Production System, "The Machine That Changed the World," is published and the term "lean manufacturing" is coined.

Dec. 17, 1992

The North American Free Trade Agreement is signed by Canada, Mexico and the United States.



Dec. 11, 2001

China formally joins the World Trade Organization.

Click "Web Extra" to find a timeline of key events in manufacturing, engineering, technology, business and popular culture over the last 50 years.

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