The factory of the future is here – the smart factory.
The real, tangible world of traditional manufacturing factories is converging with the new age of digital engineering practices. Known as ‘Industry 4.0’, developing technologies allow for factories to upgrade their entire operation, from the beginning of the supply chain through to finished product, and it can all be controlled and monitored through a computer screen from anywhere in the world.
Such powerful technology has often been mythologised in previous decades, but we have arrived at the time where it has become a reality. However, the understanding of what smart factories are, and indeed Industry 4.0 as a whole, is limited and needs clarifying for many manufacturers.
What is a smart factory?
Smart factories are manufacturing and engineering facilities that utilise Industry 4.0 practises.
What is ‘Industry 4.0’?
Industry 4.0 is the term used to describe what is essentially considered to be the next industrial revolution. Industry 4.0’s central tenet is the use of Internet of Things (IoT). The Internet of Things is the term used to describe the interconnectivity of physical objects. This includes technology products such as computers, phones, TVs and tablets, as well as ordinary appliances or machinery such as cars, furniture, clocks and light fittings. Industry 4.0 is the concept of using IoT to automate processes without the need of an operator and create dynamic systems that only run through the sharing of data via the internet.
In the context of a smart factory, machines can now integrate and communicate through IoT in order to complete actions, as well as report or shut down any processes from analysis of data collected. For example, a machine can recommend a change in material flow if it identifies an interruption in the production line or a change in average completion times for a process.
Smart factories are continually discovering the ways in which they can farm and utilise all the data and information about their manufacturing processes to improve their overall efficiency. Many machines in today’s production lines are now intelligent enough to interface and operate themselves without the need of manual input and deliver reports automatically.
IoT is not a new concept – the technology is most recognisable in cloud computing via your smartphone. Through IoT, users have been capable of sharing all kinds of documents or authorising actions through apps for the last decade. This technology is now developing and creating industrial practises for a new era.
What is the aim of a smart factory?
The ultimate aim of smart factories is to reduce downtime, defects and waste, by using new technologies to remove instances of human error via IoT. The four main drivers for bringing IoT into a factory setting are:
1) The rise in the amount of data we can access about anything through any internet-connected appliance. For a smart factory, the new analytical capabilities are a positive, meaning they can break down into the minutiae of how well a machine is performing and keep track of all KPIs from the beginning of operation.
2) The growing processing power of new computers with almost limitless amounts of memory. The devices are getting smaller and more streamlined, but the capabilities continue to grow.
3) Human-machine interaction is becoming more intuitive, thanks to touch screens and AR (augmented reality).
The ways in which machines can be programmed and accessed are now easier and more available to workers of any skill level.
4) The growth of advanced robotics, seen in laser cutting, 3D printing, etc. Even more complex and more precise programming can be achieved, meaning bigger and better machines are available in manufacturing.
How will smart factories change the manufacturing sector?
All systems that form smart factories work together to manage all processes, from material flow, to employee management, to sequencing certain dynamic systems when creating a product. This may mean that the types of worker than smart factories employ will be of a greatly different skill set. The rise of the smart factory will see the rise in the IT and computer engineering sectors, and away from more traditional labouring and and assembly line roles towards product development and repair teams.
There are many types of products available to readily implement into your factory, from reports systems to complete machines, ready-made to include IoT capabilities, meaning the reality of a smart factory may not even be your choice.
Laser cutting machinery and 3D printers continue to grow in popularity, vastly improving speed and efficiency in creating product parts. This is due to the demand for specific orders and lot sizes is growing, enabled by optimised, networked production with IoT. ‘Bespoke’ will soon no longer be a value proposition, as the time and resources needed to make a specialist order is reducing thanks to Industry 4.0 and smart factories.