Digital transformation: Connected manufacturing benefits manufacturer and customer alike
Oct. 11, 2016 - Today, and more than ever in the future, technology is sitting right at the heart of the manufacturing industry. Through digital advancements, the scope for revolution is enormous, and for those who recognize that digital transformation is the only way to survive and thrive, the time to strike is now.
Much is being written about smart manufacturing or Industry 4.0 — the next industrial revolution — yet few actually understand the holistic benefits this trend can provide to the entire value chain. In essence, smart manufacturing is the fusion of the online world — its capabilities for real-time insight, connectivity and interactive communication — with existing manufacturing production capabilities and processes. All underpinned by a combination of software, sensors, processors and communications technology, or a digital manufacturing platform.
With smart manufacturing, machinery and equipment will no longer simply govern and drive the production process, they will be capable of continuously optimizing the production process and also connecting it to the outside world: the enterprise, customers and suppliers. The production process will give off enormous amounts of data that can be used to optimize quality, yield, energy utilization and uptime by understanding and adjusting current performance while predicting future needs, such as remaining useful life for components and equipment. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is a key enabling technology as it provides the data for continuous streaming analysis. But analyzing and optimizing production efficiency is only a single outcome of the larger objectives for smart manufacturing. The real purpose is the merging and harmonizing of data, robotics and people — with the main goals of improving customer value, productivity and product quality across the entire enterprise, not just the shop floor.
The role of robotics
In a smart factory, intelligent manufacturing equipment is connected to a series of modules that can communicate with operators, as well as with each other. Each module performs a different task and can be rearranged in any order. These modules are able to understand when it’s their turn to carry out a task, and have the ability for new modules to be added at any time. Each piece of equipment can self-assess, self-regulate and communicate a constant stream of accurate data about its activity.
When building a circuit board for instance, a programmable logic controller (PLC) can tell a paintbrush that is applying adhesive to one side of a semi-conductor wafer to depress the brush by a specific level and to apply 1/16-inch worth of adhesive. In reality, the brush will degrade and more or less adhesive may find its way onto the back of the wafer. Testing can determine on intermittent variables when the brush may need to be replaced, but that takes time and isn’t exactly foolproof. In connected manufacturing, maintenance technicians understand when to take action because brush wear is understood and remaining useful life is predicted based on vibration during application, adhesive usage or other factors used to determine adhesive application quality. Through this one example, it is easy to see how efficiencies in production can be made almost immediately.
While advanced robotics are critical pieces of equipment, proper smart manufacturing also requires people to work alongside the automated equipment where appropriate, to allow for more flexible production. What makes a factory truly smart — and not just an efficient production line — is the ability to use the data coming off the sensors, in real time to improve operational efficiencies inside and outside the plant. Being able to see and react to customer and supplier data immediately becomes the core of a well-functioning, smart supply chain hub.
Advanced robotics will bring about a future where humans will work alongside robotics in combined work cells without a fear of injury, as the robots will be smart enough to not only avoid humans, but interact with them. The technology underpinning this will be similar to the smart cars that can drive themselves or, at a minimum, avoid collisions. This will enable a new level of flexibility in manufacturing as there will be cases when extra flexibility is required — for example when the production requirement is extremely small or a short time frame exists, and the requirements cannot be entered into the advanced robot. Interestingly enough, this also changes the requirements for labour in production as these positions will require an individual to be able to perform a large variety of tasks with speed and consistent quality, most likely resulting in a wage increase to find and retain the right persons.
Maintaining quality control
While increasing efficiencies and reducing costs are attractive prospects, the biggest value driver for the adoption of automation is actually the potential impact on product quality. Calculating the tradeoff is actually easier than expected. To do this, data on quality certainty, yield and productivity can be evaluated between manual processes and automation. Where this gets very interesting is that currently this calculation requires understanding the maintenance costs of the automation equipment in addition to the capital expenditures and cost of capital over the term of the loan. However, connected manufacturing extends beyond the four walls. It provides data to equipment manufacturers and services so they can provide an outcome-based cost model, allowing for the value comparison to be much simpler and the true cost to be aligned with actual requirements, which is uptime, yield, quality and availability. Ultimately, smart factories are about enhanced, more finite control over the production line — ensuring the line is not overproducing, not under producing, and that planned, finished good yield consistently occurs.
The potential of 3D manufacturing
Although the development and integration of 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is still in early stages, there is huge potential for its impact on the industry’s future. Plenty of manufacturers are finding uses for it, and it will likely be the last piece in the technology puzzle needed to streamline a facility and maximize production line flexibility.
3D printing is already revolutionizing business for some manufacturers. Rather than buy specially made parts and components, this technology enables production on premise to be a fraction of the cost, whilst eliminating lengthy lead times and intellectual property worries. Some see a future where customized consumer products can be ordered online and manufactured on demand; Amazon is already said to be planning fleets of lorries with 3D printers on board for instant manufacture and delivery, the moment an order is placed.
The real significance of successfully implementing 3D printing on the factory floor is the potential to incorporate customer specific components and items put together without disrupting the production line. Smart 3D printers will pave the way for mass customization — the ability for manufacturers to make huge amounts of product that are very personalized. This, coupled with the data stream coming off the sensors on the production line, will allow customers to make changes to their product orders and afford suppliers the ability to react within reason.
The vast majority of manufacturers have not gotten further than the initial stage of making their factories smart — a process which should begin by pursuing technology with less critical, slower moving SKUs. This is where manufacturers can begin to iron out the kinks and realize the true potential of robotic technology, 3D printing and a flexible, digital manufacturing environment.
Technology has enabled businesses to collect and analyze more data about their customers than ever before. It has also facilitated a two-way flow of information, meaning customers can communicate with brands as much as brands can communicate with customers. With real and deep insight, manufacturers can create products, services, pricing models and business processes that best suit their customers and offer a level of service that puts them ahead of the competition.
At the end of the day, the goal of moving towards intelligent manufacturing is to deliver the customer exactly what they want, at the price they want, while still maximizing efficiency and productivity as an enterprise. For manufacturers, being able to control, customize and manipulate capacity based on what components and products are coming off the
product line allows them to shift capacity from one product to another without bankrupting themselves — a reality hitting home for more companies recently.
As manufacturers around the world aim to meet increasing customer demands, smart factories will be the key to success. Harnessing the power of robotics and intelligent manufacturing technology will provide greater agility, efficiency and flexibility to deliver customized products without pushing the limits of capacity. There has never been a time riper for companies to invest in smart technology, and those able to digitize will find themselves at the head of the pack.
Sean Riley is the global industry director, Manufacturing & Transportation at Software AG. His focus areas include value discovery and enablement; process improvement; financial and economic modelling; and collaboration enablement. He has more than 10 years of experience in supply chain related fields with a specific focus on logistics operations.
This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.
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