What will the factory of the future look like?

The concept of Industry 4.0 was coined in Germany in 2011, and has now been adopted by the manufacturing and logistics industry as the next industrial revolution. However, for many organisations and sectors Industry 4.0, as a goal, is still a vision rather than a reality. “A lot of people are still trying to grasp the concept of Industry 4.0, even within the industry,” says Kang-Wei Ang, Maxolution systems manager, SEW-Eurodrive.

One area of Industry 4.0 that is gaining significant traction is the concept of the smart factory. “Thanks to the technology behind computing, networking and the internet, everyone and everything is digitally connected. We have smart phones, smart houses, smart cars and now we have smart factories,” says Ang.

With more than 20 years in the industry, Ang is well-placed to elaborate on the idea behind the smart factory. “The concept of the smart factory is that the production facilities and logistics systems within a factory organise themselves, without human intervention,” he said. “The raw material gets stored automatically, then when there is an order it is produced and organised completely by itself. We use intelligent systems so the product tells the machine about its properties and what needs to be done – its very much machine talking to machine.”

Collaboration and integration
A key element of Industry 4.0 is the merging of the physical and virtual world. “Computers and automation are brought together in an entirely new manner, with robotics connected to computer systems capable of learning and controlling the robotics and machines with very little input from human operators,” said Ang.

Converting a factory to a smart factory is not just about having the right machines in place, it is also about all departments becoming smarter – factories need to undergo digital transformation.

“You need computers and IT support networks, sensors and automation, robotics, autonomous systems, and possibly even new production methods and processes – it pretty much involves digitalising, automating and interconnecting all machines and processes together,” said Ang.

When you consider that many warehouses don’t even have an IT department, this shift to a factory of the future can seem daunting at first, but with specialist advice from solution providers and consultants, there will be opportunities to build or modify existing factories that align to Industry 4.0.

Historically, factories have featured fixed conveyors. But Ang advises that with the consumer demands placed on manufacturers today flexibility becomes a fundamental feature of a smart factory. “Fixed conveyors were the norm in Industry 3.0 but in today’s world we cannot rely on fixed technology, we need flexible transport modes. Customer demands for customised products and variants are growing and product life cycles are becoming increasingly shorter,” said Ang.

According to Ang, customisable products require a flexible production line where properties can be interchanged and adapted to meet market demands. Shorter product life cycles require factories to be responsive enough to adapt to the market changes rapidly. Replacing whole conveyor lines is a rather slow and expensive job and simply not a viable option anymore.

Ultimately smart factories should be able to produce a batch of one as economically as large volume production in Industry 3.0 mass manufacturing – and faster. Therefore, besides flexibility and responsiveness productivity is also a key driving factor for smart factories. Currently, many repetitive tasks, such as pick and place in production and manual handling, such as transporting of material within factories, are currently carried out by humans.

However the Cupertino, Alertness Solutions 2010 study showed that fatigued workers cost businesses almost $2,600 per worker each year. Another study, the AIG Absenteeism & Presenteeism Survey Report from 2015, showed that unscheduled days off costs the Australian economy an estimated $44 billion per year. Cost-efficient production processes that enable smoother work flows and reduce wastages will require the integration of robotics and automation.

Building a smart factory is not an easy task, but the successful implementation of Industry 4.0 will provide the necessary flexibility, responsiveness, efficiency and sustainability for companies to meet the market demands of the future, ensuring they stay competitive.

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