The manufacturing sector has begun to realize the full potential of new technologies in recent years. Cloud computing, mobile devices, advanced robotics, and the Internet of Things have made the factories smart.
As these technologies continue to redefine what’s possible for the factory of tomorrow, smart manufacturing companies have brought innovations to market that are revolutionizing the quality and efficiency of their operations.
In this article, we’ll cover eight ways technology is changing manufacturing to make smart factories a reality.
Research and Product Design in the Era of Smart Factories
When it comes to R&D, one of the predictors of success is hiring and retaining the top scientific and quantitative talent.
In short: You can’t have smart factories without smart people.
Crowd-sourcing and social media platforms like Quantopian and Science Exchange have given industry better access to that talent.
Scientific and engineering talent once seemed replaceable in the past, but competition among manufacturing companies to re-imagine existing products and create new ones is making them indispensable.
The process of prototyping is also being revolutionized by technologies like 3D printing and AI.
On one hand, the lead time required to produce working models and prototypes have been cut dramatically by 3D printing machines.
On the other hand, artificial intelligence has expedited research that requires complex computations and data analysis.
Smart Factories and Operational Planning
Once new products are fully designed, the planning and tooling process to prepare factories to produce them has traditionally taken over a year.
Decentralized manufacturing is a trend that promises to reduce the lead time for bringing new products to the production line of tomorrow’s smart factories.
Companies like Xometry are creating a responsive infrastructure of contract manufacturers that can deliver parts and assembly products on demand.
New trends in software development are innovating the field of enterprise resource planning with cloud applications that cut costs and improve accessibility.
Blockchain software development is also making it possible to integrate ERP data and software across business units.
Monitoring and Data Sources are Crucial
Mobile and cloud technologies are bringing real-time data collection and monitoring to manufacturing operations. The downtime of production lines is one of the costliest problems faced by factories.
Real-time monitoring of machine status and operations is helping production managers reduce downtime and improve preventative maintenance.
These systems are installed by adding Wi-Fi or mobile-connected sensors and controllers to equipment that has been traditionally offline, bringing factories one step closer to becoming smart factories.
Smart Factories Ensure Worker Safety and Augmentation
Wearable technology is coming to dirty and dangerous work environments in the form of advanced safety suits and exoskeletons.
These types of gear will make it possible for workers to handle heavy lifting without the risk of long-term injuries to their back and joints.
Augmented reality technology is also being tested to make managing automated machinery and equipment more efficient.
Products like Google Glasses can communicate warnings and technical information to workers with HUD overlays, and managers can interact with ERP systems while on the production floor.
Improved Production and Assembly
The smart factories of the future will take automation technology further than in the past thanks to more powerful artificial intelligence applications and cloud computing.
Dubbed Industry 4.0, this constellation of new technologies are coming together to create safer work environments and efficient manufacturing supply chains.
Machines and production lines can be directed by AI and ERP applications through Wi-Fi controllers.
When production equipment is connected to a manufacturer’s network, the real-time status of operations can be managed from a supervisor’s office or even remotely at a regional office.
This level of control enables just-in-time manufacturing and more efficient order management.
Automation will also make dangerous and unpleasant work easier to manage by reducing the number of workers needed to perform it.
Those workers can then be redirected to productive work or managing automated systems in the same factory.
Quality is a critical part of a manufacturer’s brand.
Quality assurance involves more than product defects and durability. It includes on-time deliveries, customer satisfaction, and vendor tracking.
When it comes to detecting defective products, however, smart factories will employ vision technology. This tech will help production workers sort bad products from good ones and halt production lines when they malfunction.
It’s especially important for detecting imperfections that are difficult to see with the naked eye.
Supply chain tracking with blockchain software is also helping regulated industries like food and health care organize product recalls by giving companies a better way to share data with each other in real-time.
Warehouse automation is increasing thanks to an explosion of robotics technology designed to move materials.
Much of this has been driven by the increasing need for warehouse capacity to support e-commerce companies like Amazon and traditional retailers moving to the online market.
While robotics has been used to move products in large facilities for years, robotic arms are arriving to help workers package shipments, and even bipedal robots may soon carry materials and stock shelves in distribution centers.
AI vision technology is also being used to create paperless processes and automate routing systems for packages as they move through distribution systems.
Technologies like Universal Metrology Automation can scan 3D surfaces to inspect packages and read multiple labels as they move through high-speed conveyor systems.
Supply Chain Logistics
Trucking fleet management is also becoming more efficient with the advent of IoT telematics, which allows the tracking of vehicles in real-time.
These technologies anticipate the introduction of fully autonomous trucking and lay down the IT infrastructure that will manage them.
Blockchain technology has entered the logistics industry to act as digital ledgers for shipping transactions to eliminate paper trails, too.
The result of these innovations is that complex supply chains can be managed to reduce excess inventory, minimize warehouse space, and create efficient just-in-time manufacturing processes.
Smart Factories Will be Here Soon
As automation, cloud, and AI technologies continue to penetrate the manufacturing sector, smart factories are becoming a reality.
Even more, the change will come for manufacturing as automation and artificial intelligence bear fruit in the form of autonomous vehicles and robots.
These innovations will likely only scratch the surface for manufacturing in the near future.
Ashley Wilson is working as a content creator, writing about business and tech. She has been known to reference movies in casual conversation and enjoys baking homemade treats for her husband and their two felines, Lady and Gaga. You can get in touch with Ashley via Twitter.