Robotics: The Next Evolution in Flexible Manufacturing
An increasing number of manufacturers are under pressure to produce outstanding products and reduce their costs in a competitive market.
Industry 4.0 offers great benefits, and many potential pitfalls, for manufacturers as they try to stay competitive in a world in which digital transformation is shaping the manufacturing industry in profound ways. Industry 4.0 combines Industrial Internet of Things (Industrial IoT) with lean manufacturing processes to help turn a business into an intelligent manufacturer. Similar to previous industrial revolutions, the end point for businesses undergoing transformation is not always easy to predict.
It’s a journey we’ve been on ourselves. We started back in 1981 as the internal engineering division of Fisher & Paykel Appliances and have grown to become a global specialist in intelligent manufacturing. We’ve dealt with the challenges of manufacturing organisations for decades. The knowledge we’ve gained has helped us make Industry 4.0 central to how we develop and implement solutions for manufacturers around the globe.
It’s because of that experience that we know it’s important for businesses to think of Industry 4.0 as an ongoing process. The rapid pace of technological development and its application to manufacturing processes means that Industry 4.0 is a more fluid revolution than previous manufacturing changes, including the introduction of robotics and automation. We know that there will be several key drivers to Industry 4.0 that businesses will need to embrace as they undertake the digital transformation journey.
Data – lots of data – and its ability to flow across machines, mobile devices, internal and external networks and the cloud, promises to unlock the potential for rapidly increasing efficiencies by providing reduced downtime and predictive maintenance, cost reductions, real-time inventory management and improved quality control. Industrial IoT means the factory of tomorrow will be alive with data coming from sensors and other devices, inter-connected by technologies such as Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN). With the costs of data storage falling and computational power increasing, the transformation of all this data into information that’s available instantly, on a variety of devices and at any location within the factory will radically transform operations.
Advances in machine learning mean Industry 4.0 production lines will utilise robots that can not only access the results of both real-time and historical data analysis but autonomously use that information to undertake significantly more skilled roles in the production process than was previously possible. Robots have already demonstrated how they can increase productivity and improve quality control. The application of machine learning will enhance these benefits as the use of robots is extended into more sophisticated areas of factory operation.
Machine learning will also be crucial in reducing downtime and maintenance costs. AI-like software will be able to process the large amounts of data captured from the factory’s connected sensors to predict when machinery requires maintenance, rather than relying on predetermined maintenance cycles.
The inter-connectedness of the Industry 4.0 factory and the continuing development of new interface options means the way workers interact with and make decisions about the production line will become much more flexible. Factories are already using mobile devices to give workers the ability to interact with their production line from anywhere in the factory.
Our COSMOline suite, for example, is designed to let a factory connect its entire workforce so that the power of all that information can be leveraged. Mobile devices are already being deployed to give users access to information throughout the factory, but new interface technologies will bring fresh advantages. The airline industry, for example, is already using virtual and augmented reality as training aids for aircraft maintenance. In the Industry 4.0 factory, such devices will be used for more than just training. By connecting maintenance workers to the diagnostic data being delivered by the factory’s systems and letting them ‘see’ inside effected machinery, augmented reality is set to speed up diagnosis and repair times.
3D printers have already proven their worth as prototyping devices but as the technology improves they have the potential to enable manufacturers to create new products rapidly and at low cost. This type of short-run manufacturing will enable greater flexibility, allowing bespoke product manufacturing that was previously too expensive to warrant. It will also allow companies to cost-effectively prove new products before moving to full-scale production.
Future developments in transforming digital information into physical objects are likely to further enhance the ability of factories to rapidly respond to changing customer needs. With factories connected not just internally, but up and down the chain to suppliers and customers 3D-printing technologies will become the end point in a data-focused value proposition that requires minimal human intervention.
The extent to which some of these potential developments will affect intelligent factories in the medium term remains a big question. The good news is you don’t have to start the journey knowing in advance where all the developments will lead. Implementing an intelligent, Industry 4.0 factory is an ongoing and iterative process. The ultimate benefits lie in improved performance, quality and of course, a better bottom line. But you don’t have to – and in fact should not try to – get there all in one giant leap.
Instead it’s important to find your own path based on your unique business needs and not the idea that the technology itself creates a solution. It’s important to find partners like ourselves that can help take key principles of Industry 4.0 and adapt them to work for your business. From there it’s a matter of gradually implementing more process changes through iterations.
At Facteon, we’ve embedded Industry 4.0 technology and thinking into everything we do as a direct result of our own experience. We use that to offer solutions for manufacturers that combine our connected production-line products with lean manufacturing processes and our Industrial IoT software platform, COSMOline. We apply the expertise we’ve developed to eliminate the pain points from your manufacturing processes, so you can focus on delivering a superior product to your customers in an efficient and consistent manner.