What makes the Factory of the Future?

Posted on 28 Aug 2020 by The Manufacturer

Martin Walder explores how the future of the factory floor is set to become more connected and efficient thanks to ultra-high performance motion and robotic controllers and IIoT technologies.

The food and beverage industry has been revolutionised by automation. Specifically, cheaper, more capable and flexible technologies have accelerated the growth of automated production facilities across the world.

The adoption of automated picking and packaging machines have become staple to ensuring production deadlines are met, while also improving the consistency and quality of the product.

As we enter a new age of automation and smart factories, the digitisation of packaging halls will be essential for the industry to survive.

Warehouse automation robotics robot - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The benefits that automation and digitisation have proven, outweigh the negatives. They ultimately, enable manufacturers to respond with new products, packaging formats and materials to meet the changing demands of clients.

Not only this, they also have the ability of optimising operational activity by reducing the number of manual interactions to improve speed, run time and dependability, while reducing maintenance costs.

However, we have to remember the pivotal role that humans hold in collaboration with machines that makes production processes successful.

One thing is certain. In the age of smart factories, manufacturers need to create the perfect mixture of automation, robotics and IIoT. Once this has been realised, efficiency and resilience will become the norm and manufacturers will be able to survive in this competitive market.

End of the line for PLCs and the emergence of Robotics

The traditional Programmable Logic Controller (PLC), with the odd robot or two, has dominated the global control landscape across food and beverage plants for the past 20 years in the picking and packaging arena.

However, more recently, as the need for multi-robot picking lines has ballooned, traditional PLC-based control architectures are increasingly being replaced by a new generation of ultra-high-performance motion and robotic controllers, that also have PLC sequence capability.

Crop Cap Coder - image courtesy of Schneider Electric

This new and improved system is not only smaller but more flexible and easier to integrate with embedded picking and packaging application templates. These controllers offer increased performance and a faster payback over traditional solutions, making its adoption a no-brainer.

Ultimately, not only do these controllers outstrip the PLC for this control, they also offer full IIoT connectivity and provide invaluable digital tools for remote tracking, monitoring, optimisation and remote services including the latest augmented reality support tools.

In food and beverage production, the largest proportion of factory labour resides in the packaging areas. This means greater saving, if automation and robotics can take over the repetitive tasks integrated on the factory floor.

There is an ever-compelling case for the use of automation and robotics as access to low cost labour becomes more difficult, the minimum wage increases and there is more focus on health and safety at the same time the cost of the technology is reducing.

To stay ahead in this competitive landscape, food and beverage businesses need to think of what technology will get them ahead of their competitors, but also which technology will make their lives easier in the factory.

Improving uptime and productivity with IIoT

However, ultra-high-performance motion and robotic controllers isn’t the only technology that is having a dramatic impact on the factory floor. Over the past couple of years, IIoT is playing an ever-increasing role in improving uptime and productivity of automated lines.

Manufacturers are urged to consider the ways in which data can help them remain innovative and ahead of a challenging marketplace. This could include predictive maintenance.

Secondary sensing, predictive maintenance, monitoring, analytics and artificial intelligence have all played a key part on the factory floor, but one technology capturing the imagination of all is augmented reality (AR).

With maintenance personnel spending up to 50% of their time searching for information, AR ensures that they have the right information when and where they need it, with no complication.

There are countless benefits to adopting AR on your factory floor, from a heads-up display of real-time production data and KPIs, to – in case of a problem – visual guidance on where the fault is and how to rectify it.

Operators will be able to improve operational efficiency through AR, enabling operators to superimpose the current data and virtual objects onto a cabinet, machine, or even an entire plant.

Adopting AR ultimately leads to reduced downtime and improved overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) for the machine and the same technology can guide operators through set-up and safety checks. Undoubtedly, AR will revolutionise manufacturing in years to come and businesses must give it serious consideration to reap the full benefits.

What does the future hold?

Cheaper, smarter and more adaptable automation systems are currently transforming manufacturing in a multitude of ways.

However, as technology develops, manufacturers need to embrace new, ultra-high-performance motion and robotic controllers and IIoT technologies including AR, to ensure they don’t fall behind.

To guarantee the full value of opportunities that these new systems hold, manufacturers need to take a calculated approach and align their automation strategies with the future needs of their business.

Martin Walder, vice-president Industry, Schneider Electric.Martin Walder is VP of Industrial Automation at Schneider Electric


*All images courtesy of Shutterstock