Smart factories are changing the world of manufacturing — and have become a revolutionary aspect of all kinds of industries. 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?
With the help of Fulton Umbrellas, who have streamlined their current windproof umbrella manufacturing process, we take a closer look at what smart factories are and what the future holds.
The meaning behind smart factories
By definition, the National Institute of Standards and Technology have described smart factories as 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.”
In simpler terms, smart factories allow machines to work more efficiently on their own through innovative automation and great optimisation. On top of all this, it can aid planning and logistics too. 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.
Businesses have actually suggested that by 2020, productivity will sevenfold which could see contributions of $500 billion to $1.5 trillion globally. 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?
What technology is being used?
There are many different types of technology being used in smart factories currently. Here is a selection of the most common and effective.
The introduction of sensor technology
Business owners can now monitor the manufacturing process of their products with new intelligent features being utilised across assembly lines. For example, this could include a sensor that signals when a particular part of a machine needs looking at from a safety perspective.
The introduction of robots
Today, we’re witnessing more robots enter the workforce — once was a pipe dream for technology pioneers. Believe it or not, Amazon have already automated their processes with around 80,000 robots in action.
The reason behind the introduction of robots is that they can offer advanced efficiency — somewhat better than human workers. 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.
The introduction of artificial intelligence
As well as robots in factories, artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming a greater focus in the home — with the likes of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home becoming an integral part of all households. But did you know that these artificial intelligence assistants are also prevalent in smart factories?
Forget human predictions, AI can collect data and forecast what to do next using reliable resources. 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.
The introduction of 3D printing
3D printers are becoming more common across businesses, as they can now create final products rather than just 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.
Because of the developments in 3D printing, manufacturers now have the ability to streamline their services and ensure greater efficiency and accuracy across projects.
A combination of operating technology and information technology
To keep an eye on manufacturing processes, operating technology (OT) is commonly used. 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.
What does the future hold?
Although the following trends are new, they will soon be outdated as new developments continue to arise. 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. In the manufacturing world, robotics will have more authority. 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.
‘Cobot’ has also gained traction this year! 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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