October 12, 2021

Smart Factory

“A factory deserves more innovation and more engineering skill than the product itself.”

– Elon Musk –

The Smart Factory is a new concept that represents a leap forward from traditional automation to fully connected systems of Industry 4.0. This blog post is aimed to explain the benefits of a Smart Factory and the reasons why it is important to go smart for companies that strive to gain a competitive advantage.

But before launching this discussion, let us set the concept of a Smart Factory within the context of historical developments of manufacturing processes, which have been marked by major transitions to new production technologies known as Industrial Revolutions.

The First Industrial Revolution began in the mid-18th century and transformed the world by mechanizing production through the use of water and steam that powered factories. This era was followed by the Second Industrial Revolution, which introduced electric power and enabled assembly-line mass production in the late 19th century. The Third Industrial Revolution, also known as the “Digital Revolution”, began in the late 1900s and brought about automation through digitalization, electronics, computers, and information technology. Now we have entered the Fourth Industrial Revolutionalso known as Industry 4.0 – characterized as a fusion of technologies driven by data, connectivity, and communication, including artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), and other elements.

The combination of the most advanced physical and digital technologies has led to the creation of so-called cyber-physical systems – networks and processes that underline the concept of a Smart Factory.

What is a Smart Factory 

The Smart Factory is a modern concept relating to a highly digitized and connected manufacturing environment, i.e. a fully automated and intelligent network of facilities and machines that are managed without human intervention. 

The Smart Factory is based on data and communication – it involves the collection of data from sensors, machines, and monitoring devices, the analysis of this data, and its communication to the Cloud through IIoT technology. This process requires communication between machines within a facility as well as between several facilities or operators and engineers who are running the facilities.

Smart manufacturing enables remote monitoring and management of production processes and leads to optimized production, faster and more efficient processes, cost savings, and a higher quality of goods.

The Smart Factory reaches far beyond standard automation that deploys robots and smart automation systems for various industrial tasks. It represents a fully connected, flexible, and modular production ecosystem that relies on data, connectivity, IIoT, and AI, and as such involves a number of technologies that need to work together in perfect sync.

Key elements of a Smart Factory

The essential elements of a Smart Factory include:

  • Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT): A more robust version of the Internet of Things (IoT). While IoT refers to connected devices in the consumer realm and commercial applications, IIoT denotes a digital network of connected smart devices in industrial applications and challenging environments. IIoT systems are responsible for the whole data orchestration within this interconnected network, i.e. the capture, collection, transformation, and delivery of large amounts of data to relevant processes. 
  • Sensors/Cameras: Sensors enable the collection of data at specific stages of the manufacturing process, which also involves the detection of issues such as damaged machinery or lagging efficiency in real time. Sensors collect data and IIoT and Cloud Computing make the data accessible throughout the production facility and outside of it so that other digital technologies used in the Smart Factory can analyze it and learn from it. There are several types of sensors for the detection of various physical phenomena, such as temperature, light, pressure, or position. Image sensors, for instance, are used for real-time process control, product inspection, sorting, or robot guidance.
  • Cloud Computing: Storing and accessing data over the Internet (the “cloud”). Cloud Computing enables a Smart Factory to store, process, and share data nearly real time and with greater flexibility and lower costs than traditional on-site alternatives. Interconnected machines and devices can quickly upload large amounts of data so that it can be easily accessed by other technologies and decisions can be made accordingly.
  • Big Data Analytics: Examination of large amounts of data to get insights into the efficiency of a production process, its performance or underperformance, or key metrics that should be focused on to optimize production. Big Data Analytics helps discover valuable correlations, trends, and patterns to make immediate decisions. For instance, it might help uncover hidden causes of bottlenecks in production or predict when maintenance or repair of a machine will be needed.
  • Convergence of IT and OT: The convergence of IT (Information Technology) and OT (Operational Technology) is most relevant in specific industries – including smart manufacturing – and as such it is closely linked to the IIoT. While IT refers to anything related to computer technology, including hardware and software, OT denotes all the technology that is used to run the operational side of a facility, such as machinery and physical plant equipment, and to monitor and control physical operations. Through convergence, IT and OT systems can transmit data to each other, which helps streamline production processes.
  • Real-time data: Data is a crucial asset that helps optimize processes through the analysis of collected information. However, it needs to be in real time to provide useful and valuable information as many applications are sensitive to latencies and require a fast response. For instance, if a machine underperforms, it needs to be communicated to the right place in real time so that an appropriate decision and action can be taken. The older the data, the less value it has in the context of a Smart Factory.
  • Machine Learning: Manufacturing is one of the main industries that use Machine Learning (ML) to its fullest potential. ML technologies help evaluate the generated data and produce valuable information about production processes. For example, they can alert a facility to problems in a production process or generate predictions regarding the maintenance status of a machine. ML is a must that helps reduce unplanned downtime, reduce costs and the number of defective products, or increase the speed of production.

Benefits of a Smart Factory

The first major benefit of Smart Factories is that they optimize the efficiency and productivity of manufacturing processes. This leads to cost and time savings, reduction of waste, and improved product quality. Because Smart Factories are flexible, they can adapt to product and process changes with minimal human intervention.

Smart factories help gain and maintain a competitive advantage through their ability to streamline production processes with fewer resources. They also ensure labor force stability and minimize the risk of human error and injuries.

The future of Smart Factories

The ultimate goal of Smart Factories can be divided into two main objectives – work efficiency and the reduction of costs. 

The improvement of work efficiency means the reduction of time spent to perform specific tasks and processes within a company. New technologies help improve this process in its entirety. 

One might argue that improving processes such as welding is something that is not worth investment since it is already running well. However, when one takes into consideration the ever-increasing cost of labor as well as the continuously diminishing skilled labor force, modern businesses may face a crisis sooner than expected.

The answer to this challenge is simple – automation. Automation offers a lot of benefits, which cover the two aforementioned cases. Modern automation utilizes the most advanced technologies including 3D vision, even enabling the automation of processes and jobs that were considered not automizable before. With the power of machine vision and artificial intelligence, automation opens up new, unexplored potential for countless businesses and jobs on the shop floor. 

The influence of robotic vision on factory automation

Robotic vision is often considered the next step in the evolution of automation. Conventional automation often denotes a robotic arm that performs certain tasks. However, the robotic arm is just a piece of a machine and as such, it is naturally “dumb”. With the addition of industrial 3D vision, it may enter the next stage – being able to “see” the world around and to perform tasks whilst considering its environment. 

One may argue that despite the fact that the robot is able to “see” its environment, it is still as dumb as it was before. Indeed, this fact is absolutely true. The robot is no wiser than it was. However, one important thing changed – the operator no longer needs to hard-code every single action, step, or trajectory of the robot. Of course, it is still necessary to have a human operator around but his/her work becomes much easier and more intuitive with the application of advanced industrial machine vision. 

The crucial role of machine vision in robotic automation becomes especially visible in tasks that require the automation of moving or unstable objects. Modern technologies that enable scanning and transforming moving scenes into perfect point clouds immediately ready to be processed provide almost unlimited space for the integration of advanced automation. 

For instance, imagine the picking of objects moving on a conveyor belt. Before the implementation of advanced industrial 3D vision, this task was virtually impossible. Now it is a common sight within factories. 

Let’s expand on the idea – the objects do not need to be placed on the conveyor belt in the same manner or made of the same type of material. Yet, the robot is able to perform a perfect pick thanks to modern vision technologies that are able to record, translate, and provide basic information to a robotic program that navigates the robotic arm to perform tasks even in the toughest scenarios. 

This is the reason why Photoneo believes that machine vision combined with artificial intelligence presents the future of automation for nearly any project worldwide. 

Why should you go smart now

The adoption of digital technologies becomes a necessity due to the rising customer expectations and market demands. Going smart means opting for highly efficient, reliable, and safe operations as a response to the ever-stronger drive to minimize costs, reduce production time, and increase the quality of goods.

Smart factories enable enterprises, production facilities, and other types of plants to accelerate, improve, and optimize their operations and thus gain and maintain a competitive advantage.

Would you like to go smart now? Contact us and we will be happy to provide you with our expertise.

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