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Looking at the human side of the smart factory

20 June 2017

Suzanne Gill spoke to Faouzi Grebici, who believes that Industry 4.0 success will rely on the buy-in of the people on the shop floor.

For many decades the manufacturing sector has, successfully, been employing technologies and strategies such as computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM), lean manufacturing and other manufacturing models and paradigms to increase productivity and efficiency. The key difference today is that, thanks to the progress in information technology, it is possible to share information much more widely.

 “Moving beyond the communication of operator to machine, machine to machine and machine to plant, interaction between consumer and manufacturer is now also a reality,” said Faouzi Grebici, industry solution manager for Omron EMEA. “Indeed, this closer consumer-manufacturer connection will have a big effect on how manufacturing evolves in the future.” 

A shift away from mass production to mass customisation to personalisation has already been predicted and the results of this can already be seen in the production of luxury items and products with longer manufacturing lead times, such as automotives. Grebici believes that, with the use of modern technology, this trend will start to spread to fast consumables too. “Manufacturing sites will get closer to their consumers. They will be nimbler and smaller, extremely agile and reconfigurable and above all rapidly responsive to consumers changing tastes,” he predicts. This is what Omron refers to as the NEAR factory – Networked, Efficient, Agile and Responsible. “Besides the traditional requirements of  profitability, there will be a second mission – to embrace the aspect of people and purpose,” continues Grebici. 

Technological challenges
Moving on to discuss the technological challenges for the ‘NEAR’ factory, and where humans fit into this vision, Grebici said: “Smart factories will need smarter people. Well-run companies are those which focus on people.” Indeed, the management philosophy of Omron’s company founder, Dr Kazuma Tateishi, was ‘to the machine, the work of the machine, and to man the thrill of further creation.’ Explaining why this philosophy remains relevant today, Grebici said: “Lean factories successfully evolved the role of worker to that of operator and now in the information era, the role of the human is evolving from operator to creator. It is a fact that badly designed production lines and inefficiently automated processes are more often than not the consequence of excluding the operator from the initial design of the line. There is a false belief that more information and more data mining, crunched through ever more sophisticated cloud-based software will be the answer to the factory of the future.” While he agrees that this will play an important role, Grebici argues that before implementing any smart factory solutions questions should be asked about whom it will benefit. “Where are we closing the information feedback loop? Omron strongly believes that it should primarily serve the person in front of the machine first. Operators within the plant need to own the technology they are working with and they need to be involved in the evolution of production lines. Technology should be an enabler for the humans working in the plant.” 

As for the technological challenges of product personalisation, Grebici believes that it will, eventually, come down to perfecting the art of making standard products more special. “A concept should be applied to the product and to the production strategy, whereby the customised final product is componentised into standard elements that meet the mass production model, with more individualised consumer demands being added at the final assembly stage – blended, mixed or kitted – to offer greater product variation.” This, of course, requires greater agility and flexibility and calls for a new manufacturing paradigm which is where the NEAR factory or the NEAR assembly line will come into play.

The tricky part
“The tricky part of this is to identify the cut-off point between Make to Stock (MTS) – mass produced – and Make to Order (MTO) – personalised or customised products. MTS is a pure ‘push’ model based on past history and forecasts, while the MTO is a ‘pull’ model which obeys instant demands. The balance of both flows, operating at different speeds – where the former is predictable and fact driven and the other is random and asynchronous – is a challenge. Automating this whole process, with a complex network of conveyors makes the production facility costly, rigid and inflexible.” 

Today, most personalisation tasks are made manually, close to the final packaging line.” The idea is that the personalisation cell or line that is mostly highly automated or robotised will pull the mass-produced components as they are needed. The link between the ‘pull’ and ‘push’ is established in an asynchronous manner. According to Omron this is best achieved through the use of autonomous intelligent vehicles (AIVs), which it believes will be a game changer in the factory of the future.

Finding the best way to produce large quantities of a product with greater variety at reasonable production cost is where Industry 4.0 technology will really come into play and, according to Grebici, mobile robotics will be a vital element as they offer the ability to create more flexible ‘assemble to order’ production scenarios. “They should not be considered as simple replacements for humans in an existing production line set up or as simple transportation solutions,” said Grebici. “They can offer a way to completely destructure a production process allowing it to better meet consumer demand for personalised products. They should be considered as a disruptive technology that can be used as enablers to create asynchronous production environments.”

“AIVs are autonomous, collaborative and importantly do not require any change in production facilities to operate within a flexible and reconfigurable production site. Of course, the success of flexible production to create more personalised goods will require more than just replacing conveyors or manually driven trolleys. It is about horizontal collaborative work being undertaken between the supplier and end consumer and a vertical and open integration of the information layer. This is where consumer, manufacturer, technology providers, machine builders, suppliers and operators are working in a truly collaborative eco-system and I believe that this is what Industry 4.0 is all about,” concludes Grebici.

“The manufacturing sector needs to stop being slaves to the speed of conveyor belts and rigid production lines and Industry 4.0 cannot simply be applied to today’s production setups,” said Grebici. “Industry 4.0 should be considered as an opportunity to change the way things are produced, with elements of its being employed where it will offer benefits and improve productivity. However, it is vital that the people working in the plant are involved in any changes. The new way of doing things in the manufacturing sector should always be collaborative… starting with the people on the plant floor.” 

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