Manufacturing Due A Revamp: Knowledge Transfer, Sustainability, Digital Transformation

November 19, 2021

Written by Alex Lawrence

6GWorld recently had the fortune to catch up with leaders at very different young businesses. As we develop 6G, the industry can learn a great deal about what 6G may need to deliver, the shape of the industries it will be serving, and the forces these leaders see at play shaping the digital environment over the coming years.

In the first of a three-part series, 6GWorld spoke to Jorrit Aafjes, CEO of Making.com – a platform that, fundamentally, aims to help companies make things.

“There’s a lot of know-how at technology companies who build machines, but it’s hard for them to find a platform for sales. Many sites will talk about mixers or robot arms, but not many to show why they’re a good idea or how they help,” Aafjes explains.

At the same time, the steps between wanting to make something and actually going into production can be difficult.

“We get the occasional person who says ‘I want to start up a chocolate factory’ – we do get that – but the majority of enquiries are from established production plants. People who already have some kind of production infrastructure, which includes very large companies like GSK or Givaudan for spices,” says Aafjes. “You would assume these companies have all the knowledge they need, but typically how it works is that they have certain preferred vendors and certain technology partners, but if they actually go outside of what they normally do then they’re just like the rest of us. They need to ask around – they probably ask around within their network or go to an industry fair. Before you know it, they’ve spent a year.”

As a result, Making.com asks a simple question of the site visitors – ‘what are you making?’ – then shows them what the steps are to make it and the equipment needed to achieve it, and connects them with the experts that make the equipment.

Global Knowledge

While the young company operates out of the Netherlands and, so far, has a site operating only in English, Aafjes sees the activity as very much a global activity. He explains by reference to a soup-making company in the Netherlands. “The people that make this soup are a bunch of very clever engineers that know exactly how to make this very advanced soup line, and they have absolutely no customers left in the Netherlands because it’s filled up with their soup customers. So what can these engineers do but go international? They’re going to try to find other markets where they can apply their new findings and developments.”

Knowledge, though, is very much the name of the game – not just matching sellers and buyers.

“What we’re setting ourselves up to do is map all the products that the world is using and link them back to their production technologies. It’s something that’s going to take us a couple of years,” Aafjes explained, seeming embarrassed by the scale of his ambition. “It’s a bit ridiculous really,” he murmured self-deprecatingly, but it soon becomes clear that he’s very serious and the ambition goes beyond this alone.

“In this time when people are asking ‘What are we making? What should we be using? How can we do it differently?’ we basically try to move the focus away from just the technology to what the technology can actually help us do.”

A Brave New Manufacturing World

“Technology is nothing without a purpose,” Aafjes believes. This is something which he is also seeing an increasing number of manufacturers thinking about: not only how something can be made, but why and what the impact would be.

“Some of my friends, when they think about what’s good for the planet, they say ‘We need to abandon factories and go back to cultivating our own stuff.’ They want to abandon technology. I believe the exact opposite. The only way forward is by innovating and getting a grip on what we’re doing.”

Aafjes gave us an example:

“We were talking to this company – an Austrian company. They’re putting solar panels on part of their plant, and that is helping feed algae in their tanks. Then you move into a second part of the plant where plankton is feeding on the algae. Then you move into the third part of the plant and they’re actually cultivating fish, who feed on the plankton.

“When I first heard about this I thought ‘Oh that’s cool, they’re going to do this under water’ and they said ‘No, we’re not going to do this under water because the lakes and ocean are filled with microplastics’. So they have to build this thing on land. There’s literally going to be a fish factory – on land – solar powered.”

This sounds strange and remarkable at first, much like vertical farming or hydroponics, but these are ways to feed the planet while reducing the environmental impact. Many companies are increasingly aware of this ethical outcome as well as the financial bottom line. However, the climate impacts of many manufacturing processes are still largely unknown – Aafjes knows because he looked hard for the data.

“To my surprise this information isn’t there. There’s no organisation in the world that has this available. Plenty of companies will say ‘Yes, we can do this analysis’ but what they’ll do is sell you consulting hours and make a report. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but I can’t use that here.”

This is where Making.com could have a real impact, Aafjes believes. The accumulated knowledge and expertise of the experts looking to sell could be used to make sure that production processes being used are going to be the most impactful on sustainability.

“We’re going to make a place for people who have a certain technology to explain why the technology is a good choice for the planet,” Aafjes noted, explaining that the feature will be live this month. This has not been as straightforward a process as he might like.

“Some of them say ‘My technology is really good for the planet because it’s made of stainless steel so it will last a long time’.” Aafjes winced. “Then you have other people who’ve thought it through more and can talk about how much CO² you’re going to use when you’re drying certain products over a year; and making savings by feeding back waste heat to the machine; and other companies focus on reducing food waste by using machine vision to spot and drop out bad products from the process.

“So we’re going to open the site up for people to make a story. The whole thing is curated, so that the content stays at a certain quality. As long as we understand it and feel that this is genuine and not just somebody saying ‘our machines are stainless steel’ we’re going to give it a place and help trigger discussion about the topic.”

Physical and Digital Collides

While this is all very interesting – and 6GWorld can’t help but wonder about the possible impact of a ‘Facebook for making things’ platform in the longer term – conversation turned to the digital transformation being undergone in the manufacturing sector. Is additive manufacturing and 3D printing destined to revolutionise the sector?

By way of an answer, Aafjes smiles wryly and pulls up a picture of a machine that puts tomato sauce on pizza bases. “This is rather advanced depositing. It’s very intelligent so it recognises what the machine is depositing on.”

This is a far cry from creating something from scratch in a 3D printer – does that count as additive manufacturing? “One of the big features of the industrial revolution is we made these gigantic kitchens for food preparation – but it’s still a kitchen[…] For certain things, yes, additive manufacturing technology may be applicable, but in the majority of cases no.”

Meanwhile, there are areas that are truly ripe and ready for transformation. “A lot of our focus is on the production process, but there is a large logistical part… 6G is definitely something some of our partners are thinking about,” Aafjes nodded.

He gave the example of some clients running large breweries running major production and warehousing sites. From tracking assets through to robot handlers, and monitoring the activity in the buildings, the demands for connecting sensors with analytics and control are intense. “This is where machine and equipment manufacturers start to meet people involved in data exchange and management.”

“There’s a company we’re working with on home delivery for groceries. They have a whole flow with all these different groceries that they need to combine into packages and then it needs to go into shipment. Going through this process they need to know exactly what is where, put it into bags, put it into cartons and give it to the delivery man. I question whether this is a good development – I’m curious what they’re going to say about how this is good for planet – but it’s a fascinating development and it’s good to have a discussion about how we can make it better.”

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