A new era of automation comes with Industry 4.0

Posted on 15 Nov 2017 by Michael Cruickshank

The manufacturing industry is already one of the most automated sectors, however as the era of Industry 4.0 kicks off, a new wave of automation is set to begin.

The Sawyer robot is designed to work with human coworkers. Image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
The Sawyer robot is designed to work with human coworkers. Image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

As one of the first industries to take advantage of automation, the manufacturing sector has long sought to find further efficiencies for its production lines.

In recent years a convergence of several new technologies has allowed for wholly new kinds of automated systems, which will allow companies to remove human workers from yet more parts of their operations.

One major development is the field of so-called ‘collaborative robots’: robotic systems designed to safely work alongside their human coworkers.

Enabled not just by advances in machine vision, computing power and forcing sensing, collaborative robots also make heavy use of new and more powerful software.

At Smart Factory Expo, automation company Rethink Robotics, showed off its Sawyer robot designed carry out precise tasks alongside humans.

“I think we are going to see a ramp up of automation in factories again. […] So with traditional robots, we have pretty much automated everything there was left to automate. What was left to automate was the kind of stuff that humans were doing on production lines that you can’t automate there due to safety reasons. So as the robots are getting smarter, and they can work in similar ways to how humans work […] this is now opening up new areas for automation,” says Peter Machin from Rethink Robotics.

Another kind of automation made possible by Industry 4.0 is somewhat less obvious, but nonetheless is making a big impact for manufacturers.

Manufacturers production lines often are not optimally efficient primarily due to the inability of humans to monitor and react every small change during the manufacturing process.

This monitoring itself can now be automated in connected factories through the use of IoT devices which can autonomously decide to take action or call for specialised human help.

“Where we get more involved is how do we understand the performance of a robotic system – how does that link into other automated systems – so that we can start creating the environment where we have plantwide control and plantwide visibility,” says Grant Coffin from Rockwell Automation.

With manufacturing expected to once again see increasing returns from automation, companies would reap significant rewards from investing the time and money to rapidly transform themselves for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.