Brendan Lowry, Innovation Partner from Digital Catapult in Northern Ireland, takes a look at smart manufacturing - what it means and the opportunities it presents for manufacturing.
Northern Ireland may be the smallest region in the UK, but throughout each of the previous three industrial revolutions, it has made its mark on manufacturing – generating global successes in the linen, shipbuilding, defence and aerospace industries. What’s more, manufacturing currently accounts for 11% of the country’s employment.
Each of Northern Ireland’s industrial revolutions brought about a positive step change in manufacturing efficiencies, output volumes and opportunities for cost-cutting. And, with the arrival of advanced digital technologies, these long-established industries are going through yet another critical transformation. In fact, COVID-19 and Brexit have thrown up new opportunities for manufacturers to gain market share.
As smart manufacturing continues its rise worldwide, manufacturing innovation in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK needs to increase to keep pace. With its proud manufacturing heritage, links to the UK and Europe, and a fast-growing innovation ecosystem, Northern Ireland stands out as a frontrunner to take advantage of the opportunities. Could smart technologies be the answer manufacturers in Northern Ireland are looking for?
What is smart manufacturing?
Smart manufacturing can be described as using a technology-driven approach to support and/or monitor product design, production and business processes in real-time to meet changing demands and conditions. These technologies could include anything from AI and robotics, to IoT and wireless technologies like 5G.
The implementation of smart technologies can give manufacturing businesses unprecedented access to the real-time data and insights they need to boost the safety, efficiency and profitability of their operations. Being able to make decisions based on verified data, instead of instinct, can be invaluable – allowing manufacturers to improve worker productivity, or even the quality of the products that hit the shelves.
With the UK teetering on an economic recession, and global supply chains still in relative chaos, there’s never been a more critical time for manufacturers to be top of their A-game. Being able to make smarter and faster decisions, optimising your processes – and ultimately keeping your suppliers and customers happy – should be front of mind.
Smart technologies at work
Automation: Machine learning and AI will provide the power for automated systems, robotics and cobots to help reduce cycle time, labour time and quality errors, allowing machinery to do the mundane, repetitive or even dangerous tasks that humans would otherwise have to do – freeing them up to do valuable work.
Extended Reality (XR): Instead of using production equipment for training and skill building – resulting in downtime of machinery needed for day-to-day work – the use of VR/AR can increase both knowledge exchange and operational efficiencies. Outside of training, a manufacturer could use immersive technologies to track parts and manage stock, for example, or visualise data collected via connected devices in entirely new ways.
IoT: IoT devices can be used to gather data and monitor critical aspects of the production process in real-time to reduce process variability, eliminate undetected errors and catch issues as early as possible in the process to minimise scrap and rework costs. A connected factory can also exploit an IoT network for more efficient management of spare parts, helping to eliminate wastage and reduce delays in fulfilling orders.
5G: The massively increased bandwidth, multiple levels of connectivity and signal penetration of 5G means that companies will have increased speed to share and interpret data, unlocking real-time multi-channel visual communication, parallel sensor monitoring and automation. Most importantly, 5G provides the ‘golden thread’ over which other advanced digital technologies can seamlessly run.
Photonics: This refers to the science and technology of light; for example, lasers are often used for cutting materials, light is employed for 3D printing, and optical lithography can produce extremely small product features. Cameras and sensors, meanwhile, are increasingly providing valuable information on the state of products and equipment in real-time, facilitating, for instance, visual inspection and defect detection.
Nanotechnology: This process entails structuring matter on a minute or ‘nano’ scale to enable novel or new properties. Nanotechnology is crucial to the production of computer chips, as well as for generating a whole host of ‘nanomaterials’ e.g. silver nanoparticles, used for their antimicrobial properties.
Northern Ireland’s prowess
It’s undeniable that all these technologies can provide a solution to common manufacturing woes – but with all of them developing at such a fast pace, now is the time to strike and not get left behind. However, for start-ups, SMEs and corporates with an interest in either adopting or expanding the use of smart digital technologies to address specific challenges in their business, sometimes getting hands-on experience, developing a robust business case or building the right skills can be tricky.
Fortunately, Northern Ireland is emerging as being exceptionally well positioned to help manufacturers across the UK to capitalise on the benefits which smart technologies have to offer. For example, the City and Growth deals promise more than £140m investment over the next ten years in digitalisation capabilities, while the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre in Belfast, supported by Queen’s University, will allow organisations to innovate in a digitised factory.
Smart Nano NI
The Smart Nano NI consortium, backed by £42.4m government funding, brings together leading businesses and academia including Queen’s University Belfast, Seagate and Digital Catapult to consolidate Northern Ireland’s position as a global leader in the field of smart manufacturing technologies over the next five years.
A central part of this will be the FutureScope Smart Manufacturing Experiment Pathway, delivered by Digital Catapult, which will offer a 12 week series of accessible, cross-sector workshops to help up to 15 Northern Irish and UK manufacturing businesses gain the necessary skills and knowledge to implement the technologies, tools and techniques of smart manufacturing.
Help is on hand
The opportunities for technological innovation in the manufacturing community are numerous. It can be overwhelming and daunting but help and support is also developing quickly, helping to bridge any outstanding skills and knowledge gaps. Why not see what smart manufacturing could do for your business today?
To apply for the FutureScope Smart Manufacturing Experiment Pathway, simply visit futurescope.digicatapult.org.uk to register your interest.