Business & Tech

SCOTT KIRSNER | INNOVATION ECONOMY

The factory of the future is here, and it’s digitized

A Tulip Interfaces employee demonstrated the company’s system. It uses cameras, sensors, and Internet-connected tools to help factory workers follow the proper steps when assembling a complex product.

Keith Bedford/Globe staff

A Tulip Interfaces employee demonstrated the company’s system. It uses cameras, sensors, and Internet-connected tools to help factory workers follow the proper steps when assembling a complex product.

We’re living through a moment where the technology for making stuff is making startling leaps daily — progress that in an earlier era would have stretched out over decades. If you were an armorer in medieval Europe, making a chain mail garment was a time-consuming job. Each individual ring of iron had to be forged, and then the rings were riveted together, a process that would take weeks or months, depending on how many apprentices you had.

This past Tuesday, I dropped by the Somerville offices of a startup called Formlabs and watched as a 3-D printer worked on the equivalent of a chain mail shirt — one designed by Nervous System, a nearby design firm. The printer would make 11,300 individual links out of a hard plastic material in hours.

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Even in the age of 3-D printing, Nervous System cofounder Jessica Rosenkrantz says, “We’ve never printed the design before, or really anything quite like it.” It’s far more intricate than similar pieces her firm has shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The Digital Factory — a conference being held at MIT on Monday — will highlight many of the people and companies at the vanguard of this manufacturing revolution. It’s being organized by Formlabs and another Somerville startup, Tulip Interfaces, that were both born at MIT.

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The revolution is about three things, says Natan Linder, chief executive of Tulip and a cofounder of Formlabs: more advanced software for designing things; devices like 3-D printers that can quickly crank out a prototype; and robots and other technologies that will make the factory floor more efficient and flexible.

The roots of the revolution go back to the 1980s, when companies like California-based Autodesk and PTC of Needham began selling computer-aided design software that moved much of the product design process off of the drawing board and into the digital realm. Now companies like Onshape of Cambridge make design software that runs in the Cloud, rather than on a high-octane PC or Unix workstation. It allows members of a team to look at a widget on their smartphones, rotate it, and annotate it with comments about what needs to change in the next draft.

When it’s time to make a model of that widget, designers no longer wait for a model maker to sculpt something out of clay or foam. Instead, they click “print,” and a few hours later, it emerges from a 3-D printer sitting in their office. Formlabs has one that costs $3,500 and can make objects out of resin; since the company was founded in 2011, it has shipped about 25,000 of the machines. But as 3-D printers get better, and can produce much more durable objects made of metal or carbon fiber, they’re becoming factories in and of themselves. Formlabs chief executive Max Lobovsky says two common uses of his company’s printers are making custom-fitted dental implants or night guards, and hearing aids.

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“The more companies sell things that are customized, you’ll see those being created by a new kind of factory,” says David Lakatos, chief product officer at Formlabs. Companies might place smaller factories in every city, or every shopping center, Lakatos suggests. “Producing things that way is more environmentally friendly because you have less long-distance shipping,” he says.

Of course, he adds, if a company like Apple is producing hundreds of millions of iPhones, “there’s nothing wrong with that kind of traditional factory, where you’re trying to make the same thing over and over again for the lowest cost” with cheap labor in a place like China. But these new kinds of micro-factories Lakatos envisions might exist even in places where real estate and labor are more expensive — because the speed and on-demand nature of production compensate for that. Companies would, for instance, avoid the cost of making inventory that doesn’t sell.

Ascend Robotics, based in Cambridge, is developing a new kind of robot for the digital factory — one capable of putting small parts into a tray or “kit” so that a human worker can quickly assemble them. Ascend’s one-armed robot has sophisticated vision and gripping capabilities, so that it can pick up thousands of different kinds of objects, without having to be programmed how to handle each one.

“The people can focus on the higher-skilled tasks, like taking all these screws and sub-assemblies and cables from the kit and putting them together,” chief executive David Askey says. And when you have a human putting 600 small components onto a tray, over and over again, “it’s highly error-prone, and the repetitiveness can be maddening,” Askey says. Ascend is currently testing its robot with two customers.

Linder’s company, Tulip, focuses on technology to guide workers through that assembly process, ensuring they don’t make mistakes. It also provides reports on how things are going. “Today, when you go down to a production line in a factory, you leave your smartphone at home,” Linder says. “What we’re doing is bringing in things like smart calipers and computer vision cameras and other Internet-connected devices, so you can see the overall process of manufacturing, and get real-time analytics.”

MIT economist Daron Acemoglu, a scheduled speaker at Monday’s Digital Factory conference, says Boston is “a fortunate place because we have the creators of these new technologies. But go to Lowell, Lynn, or Worcester, and you will see a lot of jobs now being replaced by automation.”

Some new technologies, Acemoglu notes, are “enabling technologies” that help workers be more productive; others are “replacing technologies,” which take over tasks that workers once did. Acemoglu says that the former “tend to increase wages, while replacing technologies have the opposite effect.”

It’s a confusing moment, as both kinds of technologies start to suffuse the world of manufacturing. And right now, the US economy — with low unemployment and rising wages — would probably benefit from a shot of productivity from robots and new manufacturing technologies.

But for the long run, it’s clear that you don’t want to be relying on a job that involves pulling levers, putting parts in a tray, or packing finished products into boxes. “Obviously, diverse skills, flexibility, and adaptability are important things to invest in,” Acemoglu says, “and our high schools do a terrible job on most of those.” Aside from programming and trouble-shooting, what specific new skills will the digital factory of the future require? On that topic, Acemoglu admits, “The jury is out.”

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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