The factories of today are not what they used to be. Rewind 50 years and the process of manufacturing was much slower and more labour-intensive than it is now. Automation consisted of basic hydraulic and pneumatic systems. And the far greater input of humans into the construction of cars, household appliances and other factory-built products made the production line a slower-moving creature.
Today, however, the majority of the manufacturing process, particularly in large industrial factories, is automated. Precision computing technologies have reduced the degree to which regular human intervention is required. The result is quicker, more efficient and more accurate manufacturing. This leads to greater profit margins for companies.
But even that is rapidly changing. Manufacturing technologies are constantly developing, and factories are seeing the increasing convergence of operational technology and information technology, particularly in the innovations associated with the Internet of Things (IoT).
The arrival of IoT in factories means manufacturers have far greater oversight over their operations. This is true both on the macro level and right down to minute details, and from the factory floor to the supply chain. Integrated software allows real-time analysis of operations: if there is a hiccup at any stage of the process it can be quickly corrected.
An example of this is Hitachi’s Lumada system. Lumada integrates IT and operational technology to connect multiple manufacturing teams and even companies. By connecting people, raw materials and equipment, the system can monitor and analyze production situations in real time. Errors or delays can be predicted and measures to prevent incidents from occurring can be taken. This enables factories to operate more flexibly and robustly.
Embracing smart manufacturing has many benefits. Not only is production sped up dramatically, but there is less wastage. This both saves money and makes production less harmful to the environment. Machines are more tightly scheduled, thereby preventing unnecessary energy waste. The reduction in the potential for human error inevitably reduces the amount of physical waste that needs to be disposed of.
The integration of smart technology into the factory has already produced significant results. A 2014 survey of companies in the US that had adopted smart manufacturing processes found that:
- 82 percent reported having experienced increased efficiency
- 49 percent experienced fewer product defects
- 45 percent reported having experienced greater customer satisfaction
Artificial Intelligence (AI) involves complex decisions being made by computers. The potential for this technology to increase factory efficiency has been available for some time. However, like automation, this is a relatively new introduction to the factory floor. This is because many companies have offshored their production to low-income countries where worker salaries were low, making it was less easy to justify investment in both automation and AI.
However, salaries around the world are rising. And with that change comes a greater emphasis on incorporating machine learning and automation into factory operations.
Hitachi is leading the way here. The company has developed AI technology that can identify and respond to demand fluctuations based on data collected daily by business systems, and issuing appropriate work orders.
Another AI technology that is increasingly being explored is “machine vision”. Highly sensitive cameras are able to spot the tiniest of defects in products that are undetectable to the human eye. A factory that produces delicate and intricately-designed electronics—for instance, circuit boards—is now able to detect any manufacturing faults before the products hit the shelves.
Cobots and augmented reality
Robots have been a presence on the factory floor for decades, but have for the large part been kept apart from the humans working on the assembly line. But this has changed: “cobots”, or cooperative robots, are designed to interact with humans, and can be programmed or trained—just as a human colleague might be—to improve its working process.
Augmented reality can meanwhile aid in the training process for employees, by allowing them to go to work on a specific task—wiring an intricate electronic device, for example—while having the augmented reality version of the correct process right in front of them.
Developments such as these have transformed the factory floor, greatly lessening the potential for error and making it possible to create highly skilled and specialised products at a faster pace and to a degree of refinement far beyond anything seen so far.
Our world faces a number of challenges, from climate change and pollution to population growth and urbanisation. Hitachi believes that it must help to find innovative and commercially viable solutions for these challenges. Visit Social-Innovation.Hitachi to learn how Social Innovation is helping Hitachi improve lives across the world.
Image under licence from iStockPhoto.co.uk, credit skynesher