Technology continues to affirm the famous quote from philosopher Heraclitus, “The only thing that is constant is change.” Improvements in technology continue to change our lives at breakneck speeds. For manufacturing specifically, IoT and the adoption of Industry 4.0 has revolutionized the industry allowing manufacturers to be more efficient, smarter, and more connected to their supply chain and customers alike. Looking at the Smart Factory, it’s fascinating to imagine just how different the manufacturing floor will look in the near-term future with enabling technologies like conversational artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, artificial reality (AR) and wearables, and the digital twin.
Alexa, Home Assistant… Lectronics Luigi?!?
In the same way that so called ‘smart speakers’ or ‘digital assistants’, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home were everywhere at CES2018 (Consumer Electronics Show) and now ever present in millions of homes, every manufacturing floor will have its own voice assistant. I hope this system will be named Luigi. I look forward to being able to say “Luigi, how’s line two performing today?” and knowing he’ll have all the answers.
Conversational AI and voice controlled assistance are an important part of just about every part of our future, at work, at home and in the car between the two. Access to systems like Luigi will be through mobile devices as well as on the factory floor, and eventually Luigi will also be talking directly to our vendors and customers.
Artificial intelligence learns quickly
Many expect AI to be like electricity in the future, we know it’s there whenever we need it, but we don’t talk about it anymore. If this is the case and AI delivers the promise of rapid processing of large amounts of data and deep machine learning, the applications in manufacturing are endless.
There are many voices in production that want to influence planning, from supply chain and materials issues, to machine prioritization and of course, most importantly, our customers. Imagine an AI driven system that learns from experience, models different scenarios that take every ‘digital voice’ into consideration, and delivers a solution in seconds. AI will also help balance these line prioritization issues and output the best solution, improving line utilization and performance.
Manufacturing in the augmented age
In the augmented age, we will use tools like VR headsets to augment our skills and to make processes simpler and more repeatable. AR glasses will allow manufacturers to deliver a mixed reality experience to both staff and visitors.
Work instructions will also be delivered to heads-up displays, giving process management the ability to update instructions on-the-fly, and when queries occur, see precisely what the operator sees. If an issue arises, voice activation will allow operators to link with the equipment vendor’s technical support team who will be able to troubleshoot the process remotely.
For customers and prospects, the plant tour will become a mixed reality experience that can be enjoyed onsite or remotely. Taking a tour with AR glasses will allow visitors to see real-time data as they move through each part of the facility and past every machine.
Cobots – Companions & collaborators
In the manufacturing world, we know cobots as collaborative robots, but in the consumer world they’re companion robots. Collaborative robots will support, or augment, the people working on the factory floor working alongside technicians performing repetitive, intensive tasks. These robots will be making their work easier to do, and allow them to be more productive. The cobots will shuttle PCBA’s from one department to another, performing the duties of a water spider, refilling components at each station, and performing routine maintenance of production equipment.
The most important part of the application of robotics, like other forms of automation is going to be the human machine interface (HMI) and the close and mutually beneficial relationship between the two. Robots will learn from humans, as well as sharing their ability to do the tasks operators can’t, or don’t need to, do.
Wearables that keep employees safe
Wearables like smart gloves offer the user the ability to use gesture control to operate equipment as well as pull up display information or make adjustments; but what about smart fabrics that monitor stress levels within operators doing challenging and mission critical work? Whilst we’d never advocate constant monitoring of operators, it is interesting to imagine a situation where attentiveness and stress levels can be measured to keep employees safe.
Wearables could also ensure electrostatic discharge (ESD) compliance as well as monitor comfort, fatigue, and even boredom of operators in order to help create the most ergonomic environment. The wearable device would alarm to move an operator to a task that keeps them stimulated.
While the Internet of Manufacturing (IoM) has transformed the smart factory concept, we still struggle with what to do with the massive amount of data it collects. At Saline Lectronics, we’re working on converging IT and OT to revolutionize the way we quote new jobs, plan the supply chain and schedule the production floor. A digital twin of our lines, or even our whole manufacturing supply chain, could offer us the ability to use this data to create amazing simulations.
A digital twin would allow manufacturers to predict the impact of additional orders, a supply chain disruption, or a simple component shortage. Supply chain and scheduling teams will quickly and efficiently simulate the ideal scenario for a new job. It’s tedious work to manipulate the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system line by line and one change, like a rush production job added last minute, can create hours of additional work. A digital twin system would allow this work to be completed in minutes!
Vive le Revolution!
Many of these technologies were more sci-fi than reality when the concepts of Industry 4.0 were discussed five years ago, but we are moving towards the adoption of them at an alarming speed. Like Industry 4.0, the next iteration will be all about the flexibility of an open architecture, with the result being greater than the sum of its parts. In this future, manufacturers will be expected to blend all these technologies (and any emerging ones in the meantime). The successful manufacturers will work with both existing and new partners to deliver an amazing customer experience.