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Cutting Edge: New technologies redefine production processes

December 27, 2016
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The manufacturing industry is in the midst of a technological transformation that has changed the look of the current factory set-up. The internet of things (IoT) has already created a new wave of technological change, which is decentralising and automating production processes. Several companies are adopting mobility solutions such as scheduling,

visibility, plant utilisation, throughput analytics and order tracking for their management functions. These solutions are not only helping them reduce inventory and production costs, but also making the supervision of daily operations smoother. In addition, the solutions are allowing manufacturers to focus on their core competencies while leaving the management of non-core activities to the IT teams.

Industrial IoT

Technologies based on IoT have the potential to improve visibility in manufacturing to the point where each unit of production can be seen at each step in the production process, thus replacing batch-level visibility with unit-level visibility. This is the first step towards smart manufacturing, which refers to the creation of an environment where the information from the plant floor and along the supply chain is captured in real time, made visible and turned into actionable insights. Smart manufacturing involves virtual tracking of capital assets, processes, resources and products, and covers all aspects of the business, including plant operations, supply chain, product design and demand management. This gives enterprises full visibility, which in turn helps in streamlining business processes, and optimising supply and demand.

The manufacturing industry has its own version of IoT, known as industrial IoT (IIoT) that incorporates machine-to-machine communication and automation technologies. The rationale behind IIoT is that smart machines are better than humans at accurately and consistently capturing and communicating data. This data can enable companies to promptly detect inefficiencies and problems in the manufacturing process, thereby saving time and costs. Moreover, IIoT in manufacturing holds great potential for quality control, sustainable and green practices, supply chain traceability and overall supply chain efficiency.

A number of leading global manufacturers including wind turbine manufacturers Siemens and General Electric, and automobile manufacturers like Harley Davidson are the early adopters of smart manufacturing. At Siemens’ electronics manufacturing plant in Amberg, Germany, machines and computers handle 75 per cent of the value chain autonomously, with around 1,000 automation controllers in operation from one end of the production line to the other. The parts  produced communicate with machines through a product code, which tells the machines their production requirements and what steps need to be taken next. All processes are optimised for IT control, resulting in a minimal failure rate.

Meanwhile, GE has developed the world’s first digital wind farm – a dynamic, connected and adaptable wind energy ecosystem that integrates turbines with digital infrastructure. The wind farm utilises a digital twin modelling system to create a cloud-based computer model of the farm, which produces up to 20 different turbine configurations at every unique pad location. Engineers can then choose the best configuration that would generate power at peak efficiency based on the surrounding environment. The sensors embedded in the turbines are connected to each other and the data gathered from them is analysed in real time. The digital wind farm also uses the concept of talking turbines. Under this, the sensors installed in the turbines can communicate with those turbines that are placed at the back in the set-up to share data about wind conditions. This means that the turbines no longer work as stand-alone units and instead operate as a part of a single consolidated wind farm.

In spite of the benefits offered by IIoT in streamlining production processes, several manufacturing companies have been reluctant to adopt it, owing to security concerns. A typical manufacturing factory is a relatively closed environment, designed to communicate within the plant network and not necessarily with the outside world through the internet. The first key decision that companies need to make while considering IIoT adoption is whether the benefits are sufficient to overcome the risks associated with it, making detailed company information accessible through the internet and leaving internal systems vulnerable to hacking, viruses and destructive malware. As a result, most companies are not in a position to ascertain how the adoption of IIoT can support them in their business endeavours.

SMAC in manufacturing

Social media, mobile, analytics and cloud (SMAC) technologies are redefining the pace and focus of product innovation across industries, thus enabling almost real-time insight into market trends and customer preferences. This is helping companies enhance and innovate their existing product lines, as well as develop new products that more directly cater to customer needs.

Manufacturing tends to be less responsive to customer preferences as compared to sectors such as retail. Given the time required to develop and manufacture a product, it is quite challenging to respond quickly and innovate products to suit evolving customer demands. Traditionally, many manufacturers have relied on market research, and insights from sales executives, distributors and dealers to define product innovation priorities. This, however, is costly and time-consuming. As a result, the market research often loses its relevance to the manufacturer.

Using social media platforms, manufacturers can directly determine the specific preferences and requirements of their customers. This is possible by automatically scanning, acquiring and analysing a wide range of data from multiple sources like websites, mobile applications, and purchasing trends and demographic records. Social media can also be extremely valuable while introducing a product in a new market by helping manufacturers understand customers’ requirements and expectations, cultural factors and the competitive climate of the place. In addition, it gives an opportunity to manufacturers to connect with each other across the globe. Platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn help share ideas, which can further turn into innovations that can be used for real-world applications.

As far as the mobility aspect of SMAC is concerned, employees in manufacturing enterprises can synchronise their tablets and smartphones with their company’s network. This instils a sense of responsibility in each team member while increasing productivity and limiting the need for IT involvement. The use of mobile technology on the plant floor to communicate information about production flows and other issues can help companies save time and reduce expenses.

Analytics can provide actionable insights on factors that directly support a company’s key business decisions such as the prevailing competitive landscape, possible sales incentives for specific products and new levers that can drive sales revenues.

Meanwhile, cloud computing can help the manufacturing industry share data quickly and more efficiently across various geographical locations in a cost-effective manner by facilitating quick and easy allocation of resources with flexible upscaling and downscaling options.

Upcoming technologies – 3D printing and augmented reality

Two key technologies that are likely to dominate the manufacturing process in the coming years are 3D printing and augmented reality. 3D printing technology, also known as additive manufacturing, produces solid objects from digital designs by building up multiple layers of plastic, resin, or other materials in a precisely determined shape. Amongst early adopters, Ford Motors is exploring 3D printing for crafting personalised car parts for customers.

3D printing is still in its infancy and most manufacturing companies are using it to produce product prototypes, reduce design-to-manufacturing cycle times, and alter the economics of production. Going forward, companies are likely to use 3D printing to make highly specialised low-volume parts that are components or sub-assemblies of finished products, or to create tools for moulding, casting and forming products.

Meanwhile, augmented reality – a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on the user’s vision of the real world – is enabling manufacturers to deliver real-time information and guidance at the point of use. Through this, companies can analyse the text, graphics, audio and other virtual enhancements superimposed onto goggles or other devices to monitor the tasks in factory. These tools can simultaneously assess the accuracy and timing of operations, and notify the operator of quality risks.


Moreover, some manufacturing companies are using this technology to provide hands-free training, enable faster responses to maintenance requests, track inventory, increase safety, and give a real-time view of manufacturing operations. Among the possible future applications of the technology is an assembly line instructional feature in which video clips or text instructions can guide workers about complex processes in a step-by-step manner. Another possibility involves using data and physical evidence retrieved by augmented reality on the plant floor to design new equipment that addresses the shortcomings of existing devices on the assembly line.

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