Manufacturing News

Why the idea of the smart factory and intelligent robots should not be feared

Jonathan Wilkins,
marketing manager of European Automation explains why increased levels of
automation are a good thing for industry.

Industry 4.0 is a
frequently used catchphrase to describe the robotic future. However, the idea
of the smart factory and intelligent robots has been around for a while now and
fears about machines replacing humans are unfounded.

American carmakers in
the 1980s feared they might be completely wiped out by cheaper and more
efficient Japanese competitors. This led to car manufacturers in Motor City,
Detroit envisioning the ‘lights-out’ manufacturing solution, which would have
robots doing all the work on their own, unsupervised with minimal human
interaction, with all the lights turned out.

However, a version
of this is being seen in practice only in recent years with technological
advances and the internet of things resulting in interconnected devices forming
a convergence point between the physical and digital world. Copious amounts of information
stored in a system better position machines to make smarter and timelier
decisions about things normally left to human judgement.

Processes such as
laser cutting and injection moulding operate with minimal human interaction. Similarly,
additive manufacturing machines can be left alone to print day and night once
they have been designated a task. These processes benefit manufacturers by
minimising defects and downtime, therefore boosting efficiency.

Next generation smart factories

The Siemens
Electronic Works facility in Amberg, Germany is a great example of the next
generation of smart plants. Spread over 108,000 square feet, the high-tech
facility is home to an array of smart machines that coordinate everything from
production to the global distribution of the company’s products.

The custom
built-to-order process involves more than 1.6 billion components for over
50,000 annual product variations, for which Siemens sources about 10,000
materials from 250 suppliers to make the plant’s 950 different products.

One of the lines in
the Siemens plant, which operates 24 hours a day, requires no human
intervention at all once calibrated, except when supplies of components must be
replenished. Thanks to the data processing capacity of the devices in the
system, it is possible to generate information, statistics and trends that
allow manufacturers to make their production processes lean and more fuel

Despite the endless
variables within this system, a Gartner industry research study conducted in
2010 found that the plant boasted a reliability rate of more than 99 per cent,
with only 15 defects in every million. Dense integration, the most important
feature of the Siemens plant, is also the key to all future smart factories. By
creating a mesh of interconnected technologies cooperating to ensure a more
efficient whole, the idea of lights out manufacturing might not be as far away
as previously imagined.

Survival of the fittest

Fears that the
advent of robotic manufacturing processes will take away jobs from humans are
unfounded. Siemens’ Amberg plant still employs 1,100 workers, roughly the same
number as two decades ago. Instead of making humans redundant in the system, the
implementation of smart automation robots is changing the role of the human from
worker to overseer, improving overall productivity.

Components of
robotic processes such as Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) aren’t really
intelligent; they can only execute to instruction and are required to obey
algorithms since they are not capable of making creative decisions as humans do
when presented with unprecedented situations. The human role in factories has
now therefore, started to shift towards programming and maintaining these

Engineers in today’s
automated factory need to be as handy with a tablet as they are with a
screwdriver. Relating this change to Darwin’s theory of evolution, one will
need to adapt within their work roles in alignment with evolving technology.

Many companies are additionally
concerned about the risk to the stability of their already highly complex
production and supply chain systems, resulting in reluctance to interfere with
a functioning system unless the benefits are really clear.

New dawn

The future will see
sophisticated software implanted in factory equipment helping machines
self-regulate and make more autonomous decisions. The smart dream is one that
sees problems in automated systems detected, diagnosed in real time and fixed
by the system itself automatically. To be really effective the system must
recognise errors and know how to correct them without human intervention.

The German and US
governments have already allocated funds for strategic research and the
implementation of Industry 4.0 and smart machines. Germany has dedicated €200
million for projects such as BMBF’s it’s OWL or RES-COM. Similarly, the USA has
launched several initiatives including the Smart Manufacturing Leadership

Though the lights-out
idea envisaged by American car manufacturers back in the 1980s is still a
distant dream, it is important to understand that the advent of the new
robot-run manufacturing order will not mean the end of human interaction in the
workplace. The machines will still need to be maintained by humans.

For most automation
companies, the move will be more of a gradual evolution rather than a
revolution. This is why continuity with older systems will still be essential
for manufacturing in the years to come. 

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