The manufacturing industry, including bioscience, has undergone an enormous transformation in recent years. Things that we are just getting used to would have been unthinkable a decade ago. A decade from now, will we marvelling at new and strange processes?
Technology has a way of furthering industries. And in ways that before had been thought impossible, or impractical. Virtual reality, for example, played a large part too in many manufacturing processes.
Imagine, being able to have data from your manufacturing machine right at your fingertips. How about glasses able to show you a virtual layout of your equipment and component pieces. Or a printer that can create spare parts at the drop of a hat?
Even limb growth may no longer be an impossible future. Biomanufacturing has been a scientific goal for some time now. and has seen some extremely impressive advances.
The internet of things
Our generation has been described, quite a lot, as being ‘always connected’. Mobile technology has become almost an extension of ourselves. smartphones, tablets, laptops. We are rarely further than a few feet from a stable internet connection, no matter where we are.
What is the internet of ‘things’? Machines also have the ability to be constantly connected to the internets now. This ‘always on’ connection allows them to send relevant, real-time data straight to whatever device that you happen to be using. Chips and sensors within these machines are able to check production quality, temperatures and efficiency. A Bakery named King’s Hawaiian installed 11 such machines in their plant. Since the introduction of these, the bakery was able to produce an extra 180k pounds worth of bread each day!
Let’s imagine that you were to use Google Glass in the plant from the example above. A few things that you might be able to say to these “smartglasses” are:
- Google glass create purchase order, replacement bearings for machine one
- Google glass order repair for machine one
- Google glass schedule a staff meeting for next Friday at 3pm
A small screen in front of the glasses will display the command issued, and the result if one is expected. The glasses are, essentially comprised of a small computer that sits on one of the arms, with a tiny camera. A small display sits at the front, to relay information back to you. On this display, you can check email, read maps, use the camera, call contacts and much more besides.
The world of 3D Printing
Imagine being able to print a spare part for your printer? Buying a toy for a child? Order the design, print it at home! 3D printing has really transformed the world of manufacturing. So much so, that many other processes are no longer needed for some projects. In China, for example, there are companies printing entire homes, wall by wall! That’s what I call prefabrication for the masses. That isn’t all either since very recently a car was printed too.
The process of 3D printing involves the transference of a substance onto a building surface, in multiple layers. However, a design is required before the printing can commence. This 3D design, or image, of the image being created, is made using CAD (computer aided design) software. With 3D printers now capable of printing food, there are some saying that this technology could be as important as the creation of the internet.
This may seem a little low-tech, considering what has preceded it here. Be that as it may, there is no denying the impact that injection moulding processes has had on the manufacturing industry. Products can be mass produced quickly, efficiently and with the minimum of waste. Any waste that is produced can simply be scooped up, ground down and used again in the next production run.
Items that can be made in this way vary greatly, and so to do the materials that they can be made in. Metals, plastics, confections and glasses to name just a few of them. 3D printing plays a part here too since the molds have to be made by something else. Some lower temperature thermoplastics won’t melt certain photopolymers that 3D printers can build with.
So advanced is this technology, that entire seminars for injection molding take place for even the most seasoned tool makers. It would be a mistake to dismiss this manufacturing process as being ‘old hat’ since there is still a lot of growth and innovation potential to be had.
Not so artificial limb technology
Prosthetic limb technology has been around for quite some time. Advancements have come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years. However, replacing a lost limb with flesh? And not just any fleshed based limb either but biologically functional replacement limbs. This remains the ultimate dream in this field.
Now, it would seem, that we are much closer now than we ever have been before to realising that dream. In Massachusetts General Hospital, a team of surgeons and regenerative scientists have grown a functional limb in a lab. Admittedly, the limb in question is a rat’s forelimb, but the implications for this are staggering.
The process involved making use of a technique that already proven successful in building bioartificial organs. There may be some way still to go, but we can already envisage a future where replacement limbs can be grown from the patient’s own cells.
The limb was not made from scratch, rather it was made using cells from a donor rat. This was required so that the scientists had a kind of framework on which to build the new cells. Here the cells will be able to ‘latch on’ and multiply. This very same technique was previously used to recreate internal organs, such as lungs, livers, kidneys and even ears. These all used a small subset of cells and were not so varied as the ones required for growing a limb.
We think that you will agree, that there have been some remarkable advances in recent years in the manufacturing industry. Although growing limbs in a lab may not exactly be a manufacturing process now, who knows what the future holds?