IBM is Predicting the “Software-Defined Supply Chain”

In a recent article over in the Supply Chain Quarterly, Paul Brody, the Vice President and Global Industry Leader of IBM, told us that we need to Get Ready for the Software-Defined Supply Chain, and SI agrees. But the big questions of when, how, and where the transformation will start are still up in the air.

According to the article, this is the most exciting time in manufacturing since Henry Ford put the Model T on a moving production line. A wave of new technologies is emerging, maturing, and converging in a way that will reshape product design and manufacturing, shifting from a world defined by hardware and logistics constraints to one that is largely defined by software. However, despite these exciting new opportunities, the supply chain leadership at some of the world’s top companies is more focused than ever on perfecting an increasingly obsolete business model.

This is because most big manufacturing companies are overlooking the three critical technologies [that] are transforming manufacturing: 3-D printing; a new generation of intelligent assembly robots; and the rise of open-source hardware. Individually, each of these trends is transformational; together their power is multiplied.

This is all true, but the transformation is still limited to design and prototype production. Why?

While it is true that, with 3-D printing, solid parts are convertible from software design to reality at the touch of a button which instructs the machine to gradually build up an object one layer at a time by depositing materials like plastics and metals in very thin layers one atop the other, this process is slow. Something that can be moulded in a few minutes will take at least a few hours, and maybe a day, with one of these printers.

And while it is true that a new generation of robot assembly stations may cost as little as $25,000 per robot and require minimal effort for installation, which often equates to a day, or less, of a technician’s time, these low cost robots are still limited in the scope of tasks they can perform and rely heavily on complex programming which can be very hard to debug.

And while it is also true that the shared-resource model of open-source software development has spread into the realm of hardware design and that, from mechanical systems to networking equipment, hundreds of product designs are now available to anyone, no reverse engineering required, not many companies are producing this hardware. They’d rather produce their own proprietary hardware and sell it at a(n extravagant) profit. So unless you can produce the hardware you need to produce the products you need, you’re stuck with cobbling together your own designs using low cost parts (like the raspberry pi with controller add-ons or the upcoming $99 Intel board).

The reality is that while all of this technology, as it matures, will get cheaper and become more available, will start to transform manufacturing, manufacturing based on open source platforms, low-cost robots, and 3-D printing is not going to become mainstream for quite a while. However, it is going to transform design — since a designer can custom print in less than a day, on his workshop desktop, a prototype for any part he can design and conduct initial testing and analysis without having to configure a custom mould or manufacturing process. He can then use low-cost programmable robots to test streamlined, automated, production processes, and then build a test line out of open source hardware. However, once everything works as expected, because manufacturing requires economies of scale, the small-scale programmable robots are going to be replaced with larger, customized, high-speed robots; the printers with traditional moulding, bending, and cutting; and the equipment with proprietary equipment under a 24/7/365 support contract with a 1 to 4 hour response time.

Design is being revolutionized by those ready to move into the 21st century, but it will be a while still before large-scale manufacturing is revolutionized.