Can you imagine a factory where robots man the front lines? Machines aware when they need repair? Data flowing from countless interconnected sensors to IoT applications? Managers able to monitor and control production remotely?
Far-fetched, you’d probably say. Or you may see it as a technological reality that is already predominant in the manufacturing sector. In fact, there is a high probability that the car you’re driving or the gadgets you’ve been tinkering with are, at least to some extent, products of the movement.
Industrial gurus call it the fourth industrial revolution — machines, and humans working hard hand in hand, powered by advances in digital connectivity, robotics, artificial intelligence, and other areas. And you know what? These guys assert it will continue bringing tons of productivity gains and cost reductions.
Well, that’s a nice thought. But here’s the catch with projections — they’re often too optimistic. In fact, some challenges have become apparent and keep on pushing back smart manufacturing’s delivery date.
Snags in the Production Line
Building and running a smart factory is easy in theory. Just connect every piece of equipment you can, put all the data you’ve collected together, get access to intuitive dashboards and reports that detail operations and… Voila! Intelligent decisions are up for you to make.
However, harnessing the true power of smart manufacturing requires a significant boost in the production line. That is hard when IoT products and systems are not always reliable or capable of communicating with one another — blame it on connectivity like the last time your computer wasn’t connecting to the Internet or vendors each taking a vow for their solution.
Then come the bills. Unless you’re a Fortune 500 tech enterprise with millions to invest in change, you may struggle to get the revolution started — e.g., retiring old machinery, buying connected robots, training existing staff, and hiring experts to tackle a new set of technical problems.
Now, what happens to blue collars? Gained efficiencies mean job cuts, and not everyone will be comfortable working next to machines ten times their size. On the positive side, it also means hazardous and tedious tasks would no longer need to be carried by individuals, a plus for health and safety.
Last but not least, what about the risk of plant shutdown or cyber attacks? Systems can be hacked, no doubt about that. And if the thought of stolen proprietary operational data is scary, it pales in comparison to every manufacturer’s nightmare of, you guessed it, a halt in production.
Industry 4.0 Applications
IoT applications, some of which are up and running, some of which are a work in progress, are giving birth to smart manufacturing. Let’s review a few of them.
- Built-in sensors make machines aware of their surroundings and let them communicate with other machines.
- Machines transmit data that inform maintenance engineers about their condition — e.g., when parts need replacement or regular checkup is due.
- A network of IoT sensors deployed in machines provides timely alerts when the working environment becomes hazardous — e.g., overheating, chemicals in the air, etc.
- IoT sensors help ensure plant safety and uninterrupted workflow by preventing costly machine breakdowns and workplace accidents.
- Manufacturing machinery equipped with IoT connectivity reports about key performance indicators, productivity, and quality of outputs.
- Being digitally connected allows operation heads to remotely manage the facility.
- IoT sensors and data compiled centrally allow to track inventory in real time across locations — e.g., manufacturing sites, warehouses, stores, etc.
- Manufacturers and retailers are notified when inventory levels are running low and prompted to act accordingly — e.g., ramping up production, placing new orders, etc.
Smart manufacturing is an ambitious concept with equally ambitious goals — raise productivity, cut costs, and meet consumers’ highest expectations. A tall order, some will say. But with big snags in the production line, can smart manufacturing deliver?