Smart manufacturing is ready to pop

By Kevin O'Marah | July 24, 2015 | 0 Comments

Supply ChainBeyond Supply Chain

Industrie 4.0 is a thinly veiled marketing campaign led by the German government and big allies in business like Robert Bosch and Siemens. At first blush, the concept sounds cool, if a bit forced as though its backers have something to sell. New field data collected by SCM World, however, suggests that realising the vision of “smart manufacturing” is imminent and that its impacts could be enormous.

As conceived by its originators, Industrie 4.0 pitches robotics, networked data collection and analytics as the next wave of efficiency to follow the first three industrial revolutions, namely:

  1. Steam and water power
  2. Mass production and electric power
  3. Information technology and electronic controls for further automation

The grandiosity of the term “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is somehow ill-suited to a storyline in which the preceding “revolutions” are really incremental steps in a bigger sweep of history from a feudal, agricultural world to a socially fluid, information-driven world. And yet, the concept really is as big as it is meant to sound, if only because it may be the final chapter in the story of how manufacturing is changing the human experience.

SCM World has just completed an extensive field study, initially focused on how the “internet of things” (IoT) impacts manufacturing. For starters, it’s essential to recognise that the IoT in manufacturing is really just a platform for better management of production. By collecting data from every material conversion step, with sensors all over the factory and the wider supply chain, the IoT enables quality checking, customised execution and continuous process improvement at the level of each unit, rather than in batches.

Chart exploring survey respondents attitude towards smart manufacturing and its underlying technology.

To make use of this platform, however, there are at least three additional pieces that must be in place. These include a network with messaging standards to collect and connect the information, an analytical toolkit to make sense of it, and flexible automation to take action. Progress on all of these is suddenly hurtling forward.

Mass craftsmanship

Harley-Davidson, for example, has tapped smart manufacturing to gain an edge. Harley’s York Pennsylvania motorcycle factory was, until recently, a vintage assembly line plant with minimal flexibility in a make-to-stock environment. By digitising the control systems and using automated guided vehicles to move pieces around the facility, it shifted from making batches to making “eaches”.

To enable its workforce to handle all this new variety, it deployed a wireless network with extensive digital signage and constant visual tracking by supervisors. The production cycle went from a 21-day fixed plan to a six-hour horizon. This not only cut costs and inventory, but also allowed dramatically better responsiveness to customer demand.

Cisco Systems, meanwhile, is using a cloud-based virtual MES system to collect data from production steps across its outsourced manufacturing network in order to enable predictive quality testing, trace unit production at a serial number level and burn in software to finish individual products.

And just last month, Foxconn announced an ambitious strategy to deploy similar technologies in its massive network of plants to “improve efficiency or target customers”. Networked machines report what’s really happening by the second and allow decisions to be made at the unit level.

Advances in robotics – including smaller, safer, cheaper collaborative robots, in particular – offer another level of precision. General Electric is investing heavily in such “cobots” for application in its Healthcare, Power & Water and Energy divisions because of their extreme flexibility, ease of programming and relatively low cost.

Units are also in use today at companies including Johnson & Johnson, Zug and Nordic Sugar for processes that require human-like sensitivity, including soft-packing boxes and testing finished washing machines.

The machine that changed the world

A century ago, Henry Ford revolutionised manufacturing and, in the process, consumerism, work and society. Today we are on the cusp of a new era. Workers are becoming technology-empowered craftsmen rather than replaceable cogs. Consumer products are personalised instead of standardised.

As for society, the pieces are all in place for a time of material efficiency and creative explosion.

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