As the fourth industrial revolution continues, smart manufacturing technologies are coming out increasingly faster, providing benefits to manufacturing enterprises worldwide. They're becoming more powerful and more capable with each generation.
Not long ago, technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR), digital twins, digital threads, cloud and edge computing and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) were the next generation of technology. But that generation is here, available and in use, solving problems and providing benefits.
As a long-time solutions consultant in the areas of digital transformation, Industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing, I’ve been working on smart manufacturing projects since before there was a name for them. During my career, I’ve seen many technologies come and go, but the following next-generation smart manufacturing technologies stand out as ones that every manufacturing company leader should pay attention to.
Additive manufacturing has been in use for close to a decade, primarily in the automotive and aerospace industries. Additive manufacturing creates products by adding layers of materials to build a part. Think of additive manufacturing as 3D printing on a very large scale.
The applications are virtually endless because additive manufacturing is extremely precise and reliable and now uses a much wider range of materials. Couple that with larger and more rugged equipment and you have a truly industrial-scale manufacturing process that can create almost any part quickly and cheaply.
Additive manufacturing is already expanding quickly throughout the automotive and aerospace industries and will soon be in many others, including electronics, medical devices and a significant number of discrete assembly industries. Not bad for a technology that started out a few years ago as 3D printing.
Robots have been around for a long time. They’re powerful and capable, performing repetitive tasks precisely and quickly. Classic examples are the painting and welding robots used in automotive manufacturing and the pick-and-place robots used in electronics manufacturing. In contrast, cobots, or collaborative robots, are designed to do non-repetitive tasks in collaboration with humans. The whole idea is that cobots work together with humans, responding to human commands and to the specific needs of the manufacturing tasks.
Cobots are moving out of the proof-of-concept phase and are poised to move into just about every manufacturing industry. Cobots can take all kinds of shapes and sizes, and each industry will adapt them for their own use. Cobots, actively working alongside humans in the manufacturing process, will be here faster than you think.
Analytics have been around for a long time. After all, what’s Microsoft Excel but a tool used to analyze data? But mostly they’ve taken the form of descriptive and diagnostic analytics that determine what happened and why.
Prescriptive analytics is different because it answers, “What should we do?” Prescriptive analytics analyze massive amounts of data but then uses AI algorithms to predict what’s going to happen and determine what to do about it.
Prescriptive analytics are advancing in almost every industry and quickly becoming part of the fabric of manufacturing decision-making. The next step will be to take the humans out of the loop and let the prescriptive analytics figure it out and do it. We’re going to see open-loop prescriptive analytics become nearly ubiquitous, with closed-loop right behind.
Orchestration And Optimization
Technologies like the IIoT are all about communications between sensors, devices, machines and controllers. It’s about collecting the data and surrounding it with context. But it’s not so much about orchestrating or optimizing manufacturing activities.
Other technologies are well-suited for orchestration and optimization. Besides executing manufacturing for at least 30 years, manufacturing execution systems (MESs) are now expanding their capabilities and taking orchestration and optimization to the next level. These MESs are embracing the next-generation smart manufacturing technologies, especially the IIoT, AI, AR/VR, analytics and cloud and edge computing.
This means MESs use the IIoT-collected data and orchestrate and optimize not only individual manufacturing operations, work centers and work cells but entire manufacturing lines and end-to-end manufacturing processes. This level of orchestration and optimization is used in individual facilities, between facilities and across the entire manufacturing network.
Smart AI Objects
The IIoT has been using smart objects for a while now. Smart objects are nothing more than functions, data models and data wrapped into a package. Smart objects have functions that allow devices on the IIoT to discover the objects, automatically collect data, add context and deliver the data.
Adding AI into smart objects allows the smart AI objects to roam the IIoT, pulling in data and context and reconfiguring themselves when the data and context changes and as data models and data sources change.
The next generation of smart AI objects, or intelligent agents, are taking that to the next level. They’re being designed to not only capture data and context but to respond to it, taking specific actions in real time, as close to the machines and controllers as possible.
Whether it’s an equipment, material or quality problem, closing the loop and acting right at the point of the issue is what intelligent agents do. For specific classes of problems, there’s no need to perform complicated analytics, involve an MES or even inform a human being. The intelligent agent has all the data and context it needs to know what’s going on and make the correction immediately. Intelligent agents are a natural extension of smart objects and are here now.
The Next Generation And What It Means For Your Business
But what does this all mean for your business? First, remember to always stay focused on the big picture. There are many aspects to the successful implementation of new technology. You need to look at your overall business strategy and manufacturing strategy. And then look at streamlining your processes and empowering your teams. Keep in mind that the most important thing is the value these technologies bring to the business and only implement those that will have a significant impact. After all, next-generation smart technologies, even as cool as they are, are just tools. It's up to you to use them to your advantage.
ARTICLE BY Forbes
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