Smart factories: Stepping into the future

23 September 2018

Andrew Minturn explores how new technologies can revolutionise traditional processes to maximise manufacturers’ potential in an increasingly digitised global marketplace.

Even the smallest improvements to a process can have a big impact – both on efficiency and the bottom line. Industry 4.0 is transforming this process of continual improvement, making small incremental changes simple to implement and easy to manage, even when it comes to existing legacy machines. 

Adapting to market trends is crucial to remain competitive. Consumers now expect customised products, greater flexibility and shorter lead times. To meet these demands, and overcome ever-present challenges such as increased cost pressures and heightened quality standards, facility managers must understand how plants can be improved to support modern manufacturing. In practice, that means making changes to existing equipment, streamlining processes and adopting new technologies in order to realise greater levels of efficiency, improved productivity and, ultimately enhanced competitiveness.

Of course, the most influential trend within the sector right now is Industry 4.0 – essentially the updating of plants and machinery to create digitised smart factories which allow manufacturers to be more flexible and, in turn, better placed to meet market demands. In practice, this means that – through the Internet of Things – everything is connected, from machinery right through to the supply chain, placing data firmly at the heart of the modern factory. With every element of a facility – including legacy machines – having the potential to capture data, processes can now be optimised more effectively than ever before.

Improving visibility 
The fitting of sensors onto all types of machinery means that data can be gathered in real time, delivering a host of benefits to manufacturers when it comes to process monitoring – from the ability to conduct production quality checks at the point of manufacture, through to system health checks and continuous monitoring.

To make the most of this data and enable the process of continuous improvement to take place, it is vital for manufacturing plants to be able to process it immediately. That’s where digital solutions, such as Bosch Rexroth’s Active Cockpit, come in to play. Making it simple to collect, process and visualise the relevant data of a manufacturing facility, the equipment presents vital performance figures and statistics in real time. Harnessed directly from sensor-fitted equipment, complex raw data is translated into status charts, annotation notes and to-do lists which are displayed via an interactive touchscreen display, delivering an easily digestible insight into how the factory is operating in that precise moment. Not only does this make for more accurate decision making on the shop floor, but also rapid reaction with minimal effort, so production lines can maintain their flexibility and continue to run efficiently, with small changes being made as soon as the data identifies a need.

Equipped with this level of knowledge, facilities managers are able to ensure the smart operation of their factory, with targeted process monitoring taking place continuously. This means faults can be identified earlier, leading to fewer equipment failures and reduced downtime; the health of machines can be monitored and recorded, so maintenance can be precisely scheduled to cause as little disruption as possible; and, ultimately, day-to-day operations can be carried out more efficiently, in-line with the exact needs of the market.

A place for legacy machinery
While sensors are key to facilitating the collection of data and enabling process monitoring which empowers clearer decision making for machine optimisation, they are also vital in bringing legacy equipment into the digital future of manufacturing, making the idea of smart factories a reality. Whether a facility is new or old, almost all equipment is capable of machine communication and data sharing, so even those pieces of equipment which, at first glance, don’t appear to lend themselves to an Industry 4.0 environment, can be brought in-line with the needs of a smart factory.

Fitted onto a cell, machine or tool, sensors are at the heart of smart factories. Connected to software which can measure key variables such as temperature, pressure, vibration and power consumption, they give machines a voice – and allow engineers to understand the real-time performance of key pieces of equipment. Armed with these key insights, facilities managers can control and optimise machines and processes. As well as harnessing and relaying performance figures to central solutions such as ActiveCockpit, smart sensors can also respond to control commands, receiving new settings in seconds to maximise flexibility, enabling actions like rapid product changeovers.

A smart future
With everything in place, factories equipped for the fourth industrial revolution can create a progressively smarter future, one where virtual reality can play a critical role in the manufacturing process. By integrating the physical world of machines and people with the virtual world through connected communication, the opportunities for smart factories are clear to see.

Imagine, for instance, a workspace which is tailored specifically to the worker that happens to be on shift. One which displays assembly instructions automatically in the operator’s language, selects tasks according to their qualifications, and adjusts each element of the workspace to that which they find most comfortable – from font size through to the height of the workstation. Taking the smart workstation even further, ActiveAssist utilises RFID tags to identify which workpiece is being produced, prompting the operator to assemble the piece in the most effective order using an interactive display which mimics the piece being worked on. Further reducing the potential for human error, pick-to-light systems indicate which component they need next, alerting them to any mistakes immediately. The result of this integrated approach is new levels of production reliability and transparency, as each stage is monitored and data accurately harnessed, so every product has complete traceability.

What’s best is that these scenarios aren’t decades down the line, but can be realised by any manufacturer today simply by embracing connectivity. That not only means they’re equipped for a smart future, but means they’re reaping the rewards – in efficiency, cost savings and continuous improvement – today.

Andrew Minturn is strategic product manager at Bosch Rexroth.

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