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Professional manufacturers have been waiting for Industry 4.0 and smart factories since long before they started going by those names. It’s the culmination of technological disruptions like automation, scalable and adaptive manufacturing, big data and the Internet of Things.

A true smart factory is one that can optimize each system inside itself with reduced human intervention and learn from changing conditions in real time. Smart factories also balance production with efficiency and changes in demand better than human intuition alone. Here is a look at how the associated technologies are already changing manufacturing for the better.

Intelligent Generative Design Plus Rapid Prototyping

Competitive pressures require product designers and manufacturers to be quick in reaching their markets and delivering improvements over time. At the same time, environmental influences give companies of all sizes the responsibility to get it right the first time, eliminating unnecessary manufacturing runs and wasted material from faulty products or bad designs.

Generative design is a technique that’s already in use today to help design products — or, in one interesting case, automotive parts — more sustainably and efficiently across the board. Here, engineers specified a few key variables, like heat management and material costs, and the generative design platform produced designs that met the requirements and improved the performance of the larger engine.

Rapid prototyping — 3D printing — takes these concepts to their obvious conclusion. With 3D printers, manufacturing companies can create multiple product variants much more quickly from these generative designs for real-world testing.

Printing products and components this way also helps realize more complex and high-performing shapes than were possible in the past, while still helping reduce the raw materials moving through the supply chain.

Collaborative Robotics and Automated Manufacturing

By 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the call for hiring in the manufacturing sector will drop. This prediction is despite reports of a growing skills gap within the industry, so the remaining jobs are likely to be higher-skilled and better-paying. Also, collaborative robots and various forms of automation will increasingly support human workers.

As mentioned, smart factories can optimize their assets and priorities — and that includes directing industrial robotics. The most immediate applications for robotics in smart factories include the following:

  • Automated material handling: Unguided vehicles can move material more quickly, more safely and on time, as required by other IoT-connected manufacturing systems within the facility.
  • Robotic inspection stations: Improvements in the sensitivity of camera equipment and machine vision make it possible to carry out product inspections much more quickly and with a higher degree of accuracy.
  • Assistive cobots in assembly: Cobots improve the safety and speed of heavy assembly tasks, such as welding heavy parts in place. Cobots with improved pathfinding algorithms can carry and hold cumbersome and dangerous objects while human co-workers perform more delicate tasks in tandem.

The benefits to professional manufacturing outfits include reduced waste and rework, safer workplaces and sustainably high standards for quality.

Self-Monitoring Machines and Facilities

The manufacturing sector has always been at the mercy of industrial sorting, transporting, processing and assembly machines. When these or other assets break down, the costs to productivity, earnings and reputation can be dire.

Smart factories will increasingly look like one Fanuc factory in Japan, which can carry on its operations without interruption or intervention for up to 30 days at a time. Other factories use IoT solutions without going to that extreme — including in monitoring raw material stocks and preventing corrosion and buildup, like mill scale, that could put manufacturing processes at risk.

There are degrees to which humans are at risk of automation phasing them out of the equation. And in most cases, artificial intelligence and smart factory systems “cost” jobs that are tedious, time-consuming and, for the most part, worth shedding in the first place.

Several technologies are converging here, the first of which is the Internet of Things. Whether smart factory equipment comes equipped with the IoT to begin with, or a factory owner invests in smart retrofits for legacy equipment, the means of manufacturing and production increasingly use sensors to flag maintenance issues with high accuracy and timeliness before they result in manufacturing defects or a shutdown of production lines.

Self-monitoring machines in smart factories can include a wide variety of mechanical assets, including conveyors, robotic arms, manned or unmanned pallet trucks and vehicles, 3D printers, injection molding equipment and CNC machines. Facility-wide data-gathering provides real-time insights into how each piece of the whole is functioning and whether its performance is falling out of known parameters or starting to impact other processes.

The New Industrial Revolution and Beyond

The technologies described here are skyrocketing, but they’re still new enough that many companies in this sector are still figuring out how best to make use of them. In a recent survey of manufacturing industry representatives, 58% signaled interest in disruptive technologies, but only 12% had immediate plans for bringing them into their workflows.

For professional manufacturers that want to ease into this transition, as mentioned, there are several ways to bring edge computing, intelligence and other IoT advantages into the fold, even on legacy equipment. It’s often not necessary to outright replace the heavy equipment you already rely on. But making the right investment in expanding their functionality could continue paying dividends until it’s naturally time to remove them from service.

Smart factories support everything that happens in the Industry 4.0 environment, including how businesses interact with and support one another, providing users with fast turnarounds and using less wasteful practices to create more intelligently designed and longer-lasting products.


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