Transformers on the Factory Floor

The amazingly complex process of making Siemens’s Simatic controllers, a key component of automation, involves selecting from 1.6 billion parts to equip more than 50,000 product variations.

Siemens sources approximately 10,000 materials from 250 suppliers to make 950 products at its Electronic Works facility in Germany. Each of these control devices has to be customized for the purchaser. So robots are connected to factory parts that make and distribute Simatic controllers.

Put another way, the robots control the manufacturing of controls that control other automated machines. Thousands of miles away in Xuzhou, China, XCMG, the world’s fifth-largest construction equipment manufacturer, uses a massive 3-ton automated loading robot to ensure employee safety under difficult conditions, among them exposure to toxic chemicals and extreme heat. The fully automated factory has self-driving delivery vehicles following predetermined paths; robots perform welding, coating, and steel-plate cutting tasks; and sensors monitor every step of the production process so human supervisors can intervene if needed. The company says these changes have increased productivity by 40% to 50%.

This is the new world of intelligent manufacturing, and it’s changing the way factories are run. The transformation is already at work, thanks to a wave of new sensor and computer technologies. Machines can diagnose and treat themselves—they know when they’ll break down before damage occurs. Conveyor belts automatically adjust speed without human input. Temperatures are regulated so quality output is always at 100%.

Intelligent Manufacturing is here thanks to new sensors and computer technologies.

A Flex engineer tinkers with circuit boards.

Intelligent manufacturing applies the technology and tools from the Internet of Things to the factory. Physical objects are outfitted with sensors, actuators, and technology similar to the innards of a smartphone, and a constant stream of data helps operators extract maximum value out of the production process and ensure that everything runs smoothly. These smart devices take preemptive actions to prevent problems like expensive slowdowns and technical issues, among other complications.

“With these processes in place, we have a very clear view of what forces to apply. We can also see, if a part has been accurately placed onto a mechanical assembly,” says Murad Kurwa, senior vice president of Flex’s Advanced Engineering Group. “We can help the customer improve on product design and engineering at the same time.”

There’s another change from all these new attachments and sensors: greater automation, which Kurwa says is becoming more deeply embedded in Flex’s factories. On a more experimental level, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently unveiled two robots, Baxter and CoBot, which autonomously collaborate to perform requested actions from users. The proof-of-concept project has Baxter (who has arms but can’t move) and CoBot (who does not have arms but has a basket and can move) communicating over a wireless network to figure out how to optimally perform delivery tasks. Someday these robots could use sensors to essentially fulfill the whole manufacturing process.

However, there are still challenges to manage before intelligent manufacturing becomes commonplace. The first is the IT problem. Existing enterprise IT systems need to be melded to factory floors that often have rudimentary computer networks, if any.

For the IT portion of things, intelligent manufacturing means cutting-edge systems

Outfitting industrial equipment with sensors is a long and laborious process that requires everything from extensive modifications of existing systems to new logistics, procurement, and order workflows. Alongside the updates to equipment and software is the required retraining of existing employees over long periods of time.

For the IT portion of things, intelligent manufacturing means cutting-edge systems. “The next big step will be to think through the interdependencies among the machine, the production components, the manufacturing environment, and the IT that connects it all, so that the production technology controlling the machines merges with the technical data of the components,” Bosch Software Innovation’s Heinz Derenbach, PhD, explained in a McKinsey & Company publication. “This requires a high degree of standardization so that the machine knows what it needs to do to any given component, and the components can confirm that the machine has done it. Such IT linkage goes far beyond current manufacturing systems.”

Security and ensuring that bugs won’t interfere with the manufacturing process are other challenges that industry figures are confronting. Flex’s Kurwa notes that manufacturing sensors feed data to routers, which may not be secure. In some cases, he says, lax security could lead to employees choosing easy-to-hack passwords, which could easily give strangers access to very sensitive systems. In the factory of the future, users still need to dream up a better password than “password1.”

Intelligent manufacturing still suffers from a lack of standard protocols, too. Because it involves both conventional factory equipment and sensors and routers, the multiple layers of technology make common standards slightly more difficult to set up. According to Kurwa, this can involve unexpected questions. When it comes to sensor-enabled clothing for industrial use, for instance, stakeholders have to figure out how to use microchips that won’t become degraded during washings.

Intelligent manufacturing could lead to even more profound changes in factory operations than simply using sensor-enabled components. In the long term, McKinsey & Company imagines a trend in plants similar to what we have seen in cloud computing, where the customer purchases only virtual capacity, and manufacturing facilities will have more standardized parts that work with many customers at once. Essentially, individual companies would rent manufacturing time from centralized facilities.

In the end, components will dictate decisions rather than computers. Intelligent manufacturing means a data-driven, automated, and almost technocratic approach to production and distribution. As more factories join the sensor revolution and manufacturers find the optimal way of integrating intelligent manufacturing into their operations, expect big changes.