Manufacturing Mimics Nature – or tries to at least


A pitcher uses all senses plus an array of knowledge to adjust for each pitch. This is a big data challenge.

Think about the most complex, carefully controlled and fine-tuned systems on the planet.

Where did that thought take you? To a high-mix specialty chemicals process? A semiconductor fab? Automotive assembly line? A VOIP system? An industry 4.0 “smart factory” with smart products, equipment, and materials?

BZZZZ. Incorrect. These don’t hold a candle to what your body does when you are playing a sport, for example. Especially when it comes to being adaptable, agile and responsive to the current situation.

Compare a robotic arm pitching machine to a human pitcher. The robot is consistent, but not responding to the current situation. Notice how much the pitcher’s senses and knowledge of the specific batter play into his action. Senses, brain, muscles, and so many other intricate systems coordinated and adjusted for that moment, that situation. Today’s collaborative robots certainly do have lots of sensing and response capabilities; this is one of the most obvious places where technology for manufacturing is attempting to mimic nature.

This is not my example. This week I had the distinct pleasure to record some videos with Karim Lokas of Siemens PLM Software Camstar MES/MOM group. He’s the one who used this example to show how much data is involved in a truly agile or responsive manufacturing process.

As we move toward an increasingly “smart” future in manufacturing, this explosion of diverse data (big data) is clearly a reality. This move toward Industry 4.0 (or anything you want to call it) to become increasingly adaptable automation is very much focused on figuring out how to create systems and processes that are more like those in nature.

As we animate our production capabilities, we must learn to use big data more effectively. What happens in our brains and bodies to allow us to function is an engineering masterpiece. It’s not easy to replicate, so we’ve been working on it over time.

The more responsive and sensitive our plants, the more we can also make our entire value chain or business network responsive. This is an even larger challenge. More like a bee hive, where the bees communicate with each other to find opportunities and then work collaboratively to thrive. (Including killing off those who don’t contribute.)

As our plants function more “organically” the question is, can we also help them preserve the nature that feeds them? Obviously, many have been making big strides on that front too (see previous post.)

As we bring everything full circle. Raw materials for what we produce come from minerals, plants, and animals – can we create plants that re-use waste materials? Or that generate waste that can be used in some other way?

How many ways can manufacturing be more like nature? More than we can begin to count. For insight into the wave of the future, look out the window. Or in the mirror. The complexity of living systems is almost beyond our ability to comprehend. That is where we are heading with our systems.

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