We are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Each revolution has built on the one previous and has upended entire industries and changed cultural norms. These have shaped the behaviors and attitudes of the generations experiencing the change which then informed the needs and desires for the following transformation. The fourth industrial revolution, commonly referred to as Smart Manufacturing, will bring about hyper-efficient and highly-flexible plants that will produce high-quality products in shorter times, at a lower cost and in a sustainable fashion. Is this a reaction to the third Industrial Revolution (Information Age) or an evolution? As Baby Boomers age and Millennials are becoming global tastemakers, consumer habits have been upended and companies that have not been able to keep up have faltered. We no longer live in a one-size-fits all economy and organizations must embrace the new production models and mass customization of Smart Manufacturing.
The factory of the future will be data driven, built on predictive machine analytics using Cobots and IoT sensors with blockchain resource supply chain management…oh and driverless trucks. So where are the people? Will robots completely remove the human component in manufacturing? Union factories provided for the American middle class so what can we expect from Smart Factories? For one, change. With the sophistication of new robots, AI and Industrial Internet of Things, people putting widgets together is already a thing of the past. But in future factories, low-skilled labor need not apply. That is bad news for some, but potentially good news for folks who are interested in learning new engineering skills.
Being able to predict and repair machine failures before they happen seems like a dream, but with Industrial Internet of Things (IIot) and the use of Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) in the manufacturing process, information about the status of a machine, a tool, or an automation device is predictive and drives efficiency. Some airlines are already using predictive maintenance to keep their fleet operational. Lufthansa is using a universal system that both presents the actual situation of a fleet and predicts outages and issues before they occur. CPS are open networked systems which bridge the cyber and physical worlds. Think of CPS systems like intelligent workbenches that automatically adjust themselves to the physical characteristics such as strength or height of their human operator, or even smart industrial robots that change the way they assemble a product according to data provided to them via a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. In the future, networked CPS within a factory (or multiple factories) will use IIoT systems will focus on the interconnection of thousands, or even millions of devices in industrial plants, as a means of processing data to optimize supply chain decision-making and real-time control processes on the factory floor. This will provide a greater ROI while conserving energy, resources and even raw materials. The advent of CPS will allow manufacturers to move production closer to innovation and market negating the necessity of producing goods in low-cost labor countries in exchange of shorter times to market and reduced supply chain costs. Plus, make the workday easier and safer for the humans within the Smart Factory.
Despite increased automation, humans will remain at the heart of the future efficient plants, though with different roles. Instead of engaging in low-level laborious tasks, people will be the ones providing the degree of flexibility and decision-making capabilities required to deal with increased automation and operational complexity. AI will be able to help workers make these decisions faster and with a lesser degree of failure and in time will make most day-to-day decisions. Future plants will comprise ergonomic, motivating and human-centric IT and automation systems, which will boost workforce productivity and engagement in human-in-the-loop processes, while reducing safety risks.
The use of Cobots, robots that work in tandem with humans, is growing as it is faster and cheaper to reprogram robots than to retrain workers to complete different tasks. Cobots can be used efficiently with laborious or monotonous tasks requiring their human counterpart to direct their motion and provide much-needed judgment (humans are able to think and react where the robot simply performs the action). The use of Cobots helps provide faster and more efficient production schedules and can be programmed to work closely with humans and provide safeguards against accidents and injuries. Lightweight Cobots can be reprogrammed and moved to perform different tasks during the workday, providing much-needed versatility for modern factories.
Wearables can help keep workers safe and provide an extra support. Smart Helmets that inform workers of both static and dynamic hazards, monitor worker fatigue and even track movements throughout the workday. Smart Glasses use Augmented Reality (AR) to help inform and direct specific tasks, providing greater efficiency and eliminating training time away from the floor for workers. There are even robotic exoskeletons to help provide additional strength for work that requires lifting, bending and excessive movement.
Illness and injuries cost companies more than $250 Billion annually. Wearables and cobots connected via Iot can do a lot to keep workers safe and costs down.
The cloud-based distributed digital ledger that provides the basis for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Blockchain has a variety of uses within Smart Factories. As the basis for Supply Chain management, Blockchain technology can confirm the origin of raw materials and the authenticity of the end product and beyond. Essentially, it could eliminate counterfeit products from entering the market and sub-par or dangerous raw materials. The transparency of blockchain is also crucial to allow consumers to know they are supporting companies who they share the same values of environmental stewardship and sustainable manufacturing.
Many manufacturers in Europe and the US looking into ways to move production back home. With increased automation and advances in technology, look for in-store and factory-in-a-box manufacturing to increase. The seamless flow of information will also allow for technological advances within the supply chain that will be predictive of demand surges, critical orders and availability of raw materials. This should please PR departments who for years have had to defend against attacks about environmental impacts and globalization concerns.
All in all, Smart Manufacturing is bringing about monumental change and while the investment in the innovation required to keep up could be high, the effect of waiting or worse could be disastrous for even the most successful organizations. Even though there will be losses in lower-skilled labor, workers with new skills will be needed to keep up with the demands of a more efficient Smart Factory. So in the end, technology will fundamentally change manufacturing, but in a way that keeps workers safer, saves companies money, preserves natural resources and provides new jobs.
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