Prepare for lift-off: Four ways drones are transforming manufacturing

An invention as far back as the 1960s, drones are enjoying a major ‘comeback’, with industrial organisations across the board now among those exploring the technology. For manufacturers, drones offer endless possibilities - from simplifying inspections to boosting productivity, asset monitoring and delivery processes.

But those investing in drones without also investing in supporting applications will only achieve limited success, as Kevin Bull, product strategy director at Columbus, explains.

Manufacturers have so far been sluggish to realise the full potential of drones. Although the value of the drone market has now surpassed $127bn, the manufacturing industry accounts for less than 2% of deployments.

But the technology should not be underestimated. Far from just being a tool to take pictures, drones can obtain information in ways that were previously deemed too dangerous, difficult or even unnecessary.

Stock - drone drones technology

The success of drone deployments will largely hinge on a manufacturer’s ability to put in place a strong, supporting digital infrastructure. Drones, complemented by the right technologies, can optimise operations in four main ways:

1. Enhanced asset monitoring

Drones offer a great opportunity for manufacturers to improve how asset monitoring is performed. Faults in the production line are difficult to prevent without an overall view of the machinery, and these faults can hinder or even shut down production.

Operations managers should leverage infrared and thermal technology to get accurate information on the temperature of production lines and machinery. In the case of too high temperatures – signalling a problem within the machinery – operators can quickly and proactively address the issue before it impacts the production process and costs the plant time and money.


2. Increased compliance

Any image captured during asset monitoring should be filed away for the plant maintenance record. Recording temperature checks, production line observations and faults from drone images this way means manufacturers can ensure higher levels of regulatory compliance.

Another key benefit of drone technology comes from improved health and safety compliance. When routine plant maintenance inspections are carried out, safety considerations often require operations to grind to a halt – especially in areas that are difficult to reach for humans. Here, drones can inspect machinery in unsafe locations without compromising staff safety or production.


3. Saving time on inventory checks

Beyond asset monitoring, drones can also be leveraged to carry out accurate inventory checks – a lengthy and manual task consuming valuable work hours across warehouses and plants.

By scanning radio frequency identification chips and barcodes, drones are able to perform inventory checks in far less time – allowing teams to concentrate resources and attention on production rather than monitoring tasks.

Take the oil and gas industry for instance. Asset monitoring carried out by drones in this sector can take just a fraction of the time – 10% to be precise – that is needed for a human to do a manual check. A simple but crucial process improvement which also translates to the manufacturing sector.


4. Streamlined mobility across sites

Transporting parts between different areas of the manufacturing plant can be a complicated and time-consuming task. The larger the plant and the more journeys are made from the central warehouse, the more likely it is to experience disruptions to production.

Drones have the capacity to carry five kilograms and are well-suited to fly to central warehouses to collect spare parts and deliver them to work areas, without compromising safety. They can be programmed to fly over buildings and crossings if necessary. Obstacles are also recorded in real time and pre-programmed routes can be altered accordingly to avoid the obstacle.

Drones are also set to offer help with picking and packing. They can be set to move around warehouses selecting products for specific orders to be taken to the packing area. While such an application is yet to be realised, the technology is available for implementation.

It won’t fly without complimentary technologies

Drones have only recently enjoyed uptake in the manufacturing industry, but they are here for the long haul. The benefits they deliver in terms of improved productivity, monitoring procedures and compliance will help manufacturers cement a competitive advantage ahead of late adopters.

But no matter how small or large, the success of manufacturing organisations will depend on how well they can support the technology and make it part of their everyday business operations.

Help is readily available, with complimentary technologies and services already fine-tuned to assist from the initial deployment of drones through to continued support – ensuring manufacturers are maximising the potential of this transformational technology.