Smart Factories: The Fusion of Manufacturing and Digital Innovation

‘Smart factories are revolutionizing manufacturing.’ That’s the claim of many tech and industry experts who believe that optimising the manufacturing process to create an integrated and collaborative process will bring about the world’s next industrial revolution. But what are smart factories and how do they affect how we work?

Here, we some insights from umbrella manufacturer, Fulton Umbrellas, we take a look at smart factories more closely including the technologies associated with it and the trends to look out for, to help push the barriers of smart manufacturing even further.

What is a smart factory?

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a smart factory is a workplace that has a “fully-integrated, collaborative manufacturing systems that respond in real time to meet changing demands and conditions in the factory, in the supply network, and in customer needs.” 

Essentially, it’s an environment where machines can work better via automation and optimisation, with this integration also including other stages of manufacturing, such as planning and logistics. What businesses wish to achieve from operating a smart factory is an entirely connected manufacturing supply chain that enables real-time control, measurement and communication at all stages — which reportedly delivers a more efficient and manageable process that should boost productivity and profits.

Capgemini, a professional services and business consulting corporation, predicts that smart factories will cause a sevenfold increase in productivity by 2022, with the potential contribution between $500 billion and $1.5 trillion to the global economy. With such attractive statistics, it’s no surprise that over three-quarters of manufacturers either already have a smart factory initiative or are planning one. But what technologies are involved in running an effective smart factory?

Smart factory technology

As we have mentioned, there are various technologies involved in running a smart factory. Here is a selection of the most common and effective.

 

Sensor technology

Collecting data is essential to a smart factory, which is why today’s smart factories feature intelligent motors and robotics on assembly lines to make it possible for business owners to monitor certain aspects of the production process. For example, this could include a sensor that signals when a particular part of a machine needs looking at from a safety perspective.

 

Robots

Although it sounds futuristic, many brands today use robotics to complete the manufacturing process in their smart factories, including Amazon (which uses about 80,000 robots), Adidas and Tesla — which plans on being completely automated in the future.

 

Robots have the ability to carry out human tasks at a faster rate and with greater efficiency, which is why they are becoming incredibly popular in manufacturing across the globe. Often, they are designed to abide by high accuracy levels, which makes them more likely to create better-quality products, and can work in certain manufacturing environments that may be deemed too dangerous for humans — ideal for high-risk working environments.

 

Artificial intelligence

Most people have noticed the rise in popularity of home assistants such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa. But did you know that these artificial intelligence (AI) assistants are also prevalent in smart factories?

 

AI gathers objective data, eliminating the need for human estimations and helping workers forecast demands and assign resources with precision. This has the potential to lead to a reduction in errors and costs. Reportedly, smart manufacturing is anticipated to cause an average cost decrease of 3.6% —equalling approximately $421 billion — worldwide, according to PWC. 

 

3D printing

You’ve probably already heard about 3D printers, however, in the 2018 smart factory, 3D printers can work with a wide range of materials to create final products and not only prototypes. As a result, the advances in 3D have attracted a new name for the process — ‘additive manufacturing’ — which it received due to the procedure of adding layer upon layer of material to create a tangible final product.

 

Manufacturing companies have a world of opportunity to make the most of with the advances in 3D printing and additive manufacturing, as the process enables manufacturers to mass produce customised orders with incredible efficiency and accuracy.

 

The merging of operating technology and information technology

Operating technology (OT), is a type of hardware and software that helps a business to keep a check on the physical manufacturing process and detect or cause changes when necessary. When combined with information technology (IT), companies gain a greater insight into their manufacturing process’ performance — highlighting any causes for concern and positives.

 

By using OT and IT in this way, which is commonplace in smart factories, business owners have the potential to reduce production time, incorporate more efficient practices, reduce downtime, and respond to machinery-related problems faster — another way smart manufacturing can help boost productivity and efficiency day by day.

Future smart manufacturing trends

But as we know, technology is always evolving and soon, the above programs and processes will be old hat once every business has converted to smart manufacturing. So, what lies ahead for the smart factory?

 

Firstly, expect additive manufacturing to pick up speed and become a major part of manufacturing. Soon, many more businesses will be using this technology to create everything, from spare machine parts to save money, to various moulds to mass produce heavy equipment quickly.

 

Robotics will gain greater authority and move around the manufacturing process, helping create more efficient processes in administration and management, as well as on production floor. What’s more, augmented reality (AR) is likely to become more dominant in manufacturing as a tool to ensure quality and help support those working on complex assembly lines. In fact, Mitsubishi is working on maintenance-support technology using AR that lets the human user confirm an inspection of a product or plant and enter an inspection result by voice. 

 

And lastly, expect the ‘cobot’ to have a greater presence in smart factories in 2018 and beyond! The cobot or collaborative robot, has been created to provide support rather than carry out separate task individually (unlike robots). Essentially, they are designed to interact with people and co-habit the same workplace to help the human complete their task — for example, holding something in place or passing a tool. In fact, the cobot is such a popular component of the smart factory, the president of Universal Robots anticipates that the cobot market will increase up to 75% within a year to reach a worth of $2 billion!

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