Technology Trends Beyond Nano and Biotech: Step into the Future Factory!
A look at new technologies and its applications – There have been dramatic changes in the world of manufacturing over the last two decades, gone are the days and years of noisy, dirty factories that relied on out-of-date tools and working practices being consigned to the history books. Even in cases of large scale engineering manufacturing, the work-place is noticeably cleaner and better organized. These changes have largely been driven by improvements in efficiency, higher quality goods and cost reducing methods.
How will emerging technologies and advances in traditional technology alter the future format and organization of the factory? With the widespread use of information and communications technology (ICT), which is creating a diverse blend of technologies and applications, attitudes to manufacturing are already shifting, including the way that the future workforce is developed and trained.
New and emerging technologies
The ubiquitous rise in the sophistication of ICT cannot go unnoticed. Processes can be monitored and controlled. Stock at both the input and output of a manufacturing process can now be tracked and the data can be used to maximize efficiency. The machines that are used in factories can have their condition continuously monitored and this can, and will, have big implications for reducing the cost of maintenance and down-time. This should also reduce the possibility of human error.
The design process itself has changed and there has been a large reduction in the number of staff. There has also been a variation in corresponding infrastructure. This could lead to increased home-working and specialized design teams, or companies, that serve several manufacturing units. References to ‘design’ will enter the vocabulary of engineers more frequently. It will become a part of more branches of engineering, which will no doubt have fairly profound effects on education at all levels.
Of the newly emerging technologies, biotechnology has been enhanced by new developments in systems and synthetic biology, followed by nanotechnology and its applications to materials, medicine, energy and other sectors. It is possible now to predict the need for a new type of factory that could possibly create and manipulate human cells.
In many aspects, biotechnology has already started to have a place on the factory landscape, but it has wide variability in size and scope. While there are already large scale operations that turn biocrops into non-food products and energy, there are also small scale factories, which have adopted advanced technologies that create pure enzymes, proteins and biomolecules for medicine and other purposes.
These activities will grow, despite public concerns about genetic modification. A common factor across these activities is the increasing importance of interdisciplinary activity and the increasing need for chemical and process engineers. One very likely new development is the development of ‘stem cell factories’ and later, possible ‘replacement organ factories’.
However, the business model for these and the way they will be organized and built is yet to be decided. The biotechnology world is prone to contamination by unwanted microbial, viral and fungal species.
Therefore, good housekeeping and cleanliness is of paramount importance and most biotechnology factories are and will be characterized by their very clean sterile operating conditions, along with careful containment of waste streams.
From Waste to Worth: Creating New Value Chains
In common with many other chemical processes, such factories will endeavor to make every use of ‘waste’, including thermal and carbon dioxide for feeding into other processes in the factory. This zero waste, maximum thermal efficiency attitude is becoming embedded in the psyche of process engineers.
A good example that is emerging is the use of energy harvesting from waste heat, fluid flow or vibration to provide electrical power for sensors that are now more integrated into the plant, often eliminating the need for a lot of cabling but making use of wireless telemetry.
Nanotechnology has the potential to provide significant improvements and changes to materials via an incremental approach as well as to provide truly transformative action in various areas. These sectors include low energy lighting, new energy storage and energy conversion and nanomedical developments.
There will be a need for significant scale-up to occur so that nanoparticles and other nanostructures can be massproduced under tightly controlled conditions and then incorporated into materials and products.
This ‘journey’ is just the beginning. We are already aware of the potential hazards of nanoparticles that might be inadvertently released into the environment or workplace, so their use will be strictly controlled and this in itself is going to lead to beneficial new ways to control waste streams emanating from future factories.
Furthermore, we have to deal with the economics of introducing new nanocomposite materials even if we are aiming at incremental improvements. In most industries, ‘cost is king’ is the main paradigm and the market will determine if a small benefit in performance can justify an increase in manufacturing cost. There will be a much more detailed life cycle analysis of manufacturing in the future. This is already becoming apparent in the field of composites, because for such materials it is difficult to recover the original raw materials for recycling. As resources become scarce, this might even lead to new concepts of recycling factories.
Sectors, Where New Factory Concepts will be Required
The pharmaceutical sector is likely to undergo radical changes soon. Many of the traditional methods of preparing new drugs will be retained but in order to ensure quality and keep costs down, the processes will become more automated and incorporate more instrumentation. The introduction of nanotechnology to synthesize new methods of drug delivery and diagnosis will, in particular, lead to major changes in the manufacturing of products.
This could be step-wise, with initially an ‘extension of life’ of existing formulations, by delivering the drug via nanoparticles or nanocapsules. All such nanoparticles will also have a fairly sophisticated ‘target recognition’ surface layer to ensure that they reach the right target in the body. Making the factory process do this reproducibly and in a way that will satisfy regulators is going to be challenging.
In the Energy Sector
The energy sector will require new manufacturing methods. Nanoparticles and many biotechnology aspects are going to become central to new methods of storing and generating energy. Most of the new battery advances rely heavily on the development of new materials to store and release charged ions. This requires the integration of new carbon-based materials that can be designed to have huge internal surfaces into such batteries.
The drivers for this are not restricted to the hybrid and electric vehicle industry, but is generally spread across energy storage, especially for intermittent renewable sources such as wind and solar.
Nanoparticles for catalysis will also be required in an increasingly sophisticated form. There is great potential for making catalysts and reactors to help convert ‘spare electrical capacity’ into gas, either hydrogen by electrolysis or photoelectrolysis of water and possibly to produce methane from carbon dioxide and water.
Catalysts and new specialized reactors will also be required for gas to liquid conversion, because, like it or not, hydrocarbon fuels are an effective way of carrying energy.
The transport and automobile industry will be placing challenging requirements on new materials to reduce weight and yet maintain strength and integrity. Already there are changes to vehicles in switching materials from steel to aluminum for lightweighting, and this general change may continue. The role of composites to replace steel is especially challenging because of the recycling issue that is referred to earlier. The recovery of energy from what is currently waste heat in both the auto and building sectors will lead to new types of heat pumps and other energy convertors.
It is clear that there is an urgent need for training people for factories of the future. There have been a number of European initiatives such as the ‘Manufuture program’ and the contrasting situation with the US and Japan has been nicely summarized by Mavrikios et al (2013).
Global trends in this area were collated and analyzed in a paper by Secundo et al (2013). This identified in particular the societal needs of preserving scarce resources, taking account of climate change and reducing poverty.
They also identify the ‘Manufuture program’ and the ‘IMS2020 program’ being conducted by Europe, Japan, Korea, the US and Switzerland, which addresses all of these issues as well as addressing standardization, innovation and the all-important aspect of competence development and education.
The UK, for example is training at several levels. It is increasing its capacity for early stage training in skills via apprenticeships and there are new special University Technology Colleges being set up to augment some of the colleges of further education. At a higher graduate level, there are several specialized centers for doctoral training. The gap at present in the UK and elsewhere is probably at the post-experience stage and the provision of courses for continuing professional development.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has recently introduced a focused initiative to improve training and knowledge transfer in the manufacturing area and it has created 16 new centers for innovative manufacturing. This provision for research and development at the early stages of technology readiness levels 1-3 adds to the new InnovateUK Catapult initiatives, which cover the higher Technology Readiness Levels. Currently, there are seven of these based around the country with an investment of £140 mn over a six year period.
Another aspect that has not been covered so far is the issue of keeping factories of the future operational. As manufacturing processes become more diverse and automated, there will be a need to obviate plant failure and human error.