There's no question that smart factories are at the heart of the future of manufacturing. But what exactly is a smart factory, what technologies make it tick, and what makes it ‘smart’?
In a nutshell, smart factories are manufacturing facilities that rely heavily on digital technologies to improve efficiency and productivity. This means incorporating 3D printers, cobots, 5G, artificial intelligence, SERP, cloud computing, edge computing, and more into the manufacturing process.
With so many cutting-edge technologies at play, smart factories are able to operate at a level of speed, precision and flexibility that traditional factories simply can’t match. And as the world increasingly relies on digital manufacturing processes, smart factories are only going to become more prevalent – and more important.
There is certainly no one ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to creating a smart factory. Rather, it is a myriad of emerging technology coming together to take manufacturing into a new era. Here, we highlight some of the key tech that will be integral to achieving this vision.
All the technologies that are driving the digital manufacturing revolution will be on display at Smart Factory Expo, taking place at the Exhibition Centre Liverpool on 16-17 November, 2022.
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A look at the individual technologies used in a Smart Factory
A smart factory wouldn’t be complete without a few 3D printers. These versatile machines can create parts and products from scratch, using digital designs as a guide. And because they can produce items on-demand, they’re perfect for prototyping, small batch manufacturing or even custom orders.
3D Printing, or additive manufacturing to give the technology its proper title, is creating a whole new world for design engineers. Ideal for rapidly creating functional prototypes and end-use parts that are high in detail, it has opened the door to complex geometries that are impossible via any other means. Far from a one-size-fits-all technology there are a variety of processes, techniques and materials used in 3D printing including stereolithography, selective laser sintering, multi-jet fusion, polyjet, fused deposition modeling (FDM), vacuum casting and direct metal laser sintering, which can all be used to quickly build parts in a range a plastics and metals.
3D printing can help reinvent manufacturing and the future of design. In the modern world customers are demanding far greater levels of personalisation and customisation of products, and as such, 3D printing can be a differentiator in how manufacturers plan their supply chain strategies. Why stock a complete assembly of parts in high quantities when if you have the capability to quickly print the exact part required on-demand, which will reduce the need for spares?
Collaborative robots, or cobots, are another key component of smart factories. These physically versatile machines are designed to work alongside humans, making them ideal for tasks such as packaging and assembly. And thanks to their user-friendly interfaces, cobots can be easily trained to perform new tasks as needed.
The UK has traditionally been slow on the uptake when it comes to robotics, however, running as a parallel stream of automation, cobots are experiencing fast growth, particularly within the SME sector which has the greatest opportunity for transformation.
Unlike traditional robotics, cobots can be deployed within a matter of weeks, and therefore can quickly save money. Other advantages of cobots for manufacturers is that they are easy to setup and programme, and flexible enough to be moved around the factory.
Cobots have the potential to take over 3D jobs – dirty, dangerous and dull – many of which are still performed by humans. By working with cobots, employees can then focus their time on more fulfilling roles, and reduce their time spent on mundane roles, improving overall wellbeing. This includes getting rid of the night shift, known to have an adverse effect on the health of workers.
5G is the next generation of wireless technology, and it’s set to revolutionise manufacturing. That’s because smart factories rely heavily on data, and 5G will provide the high-speed, low-latency connections that are needed to transmit large amounts of data quickly and efficiently.
5G can provide the means to tackle the manufacturing sector’s greatest challenges, from achieving net zero and attracting future talent to maximising uptime and accelerating product development. Offering almost limitless capability, the next generation of mobile connectivity has the potential to revolutionise every phase of a manufacturing operation, and with so many prospective applications, manufacturing is one of the sectors expected to benefit most from 5G’s arrival.
5G is around ten times faster than 4G, with peak speeds capable of reaching above 1gbps (gigabit per second). And, unlike previous generations, 5G isn’t simply an upgraded communication network. It has been built from the ground up to deliver better user experiences, empower new deployment models and deliver new services.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is another area where smart factories are leading the way. AI can be used for tasks like predictive maintenance, quality control, and material handling. And as AI technology continues to evolve, smart factories will only become more efficient and effective.
The AI utopia will see a combination of data collected from sensors, machines and people and then apply it to algorithms designed to optimise operations or achieve lights out manufacturing. While we are some way off achieving that scenario there are many other use cases where manufacturers are adopting AI quickly and across the entire value chain of the industry. Use cases exist around workplace safety, machine/building management, machine vision and cyber security.
Combining AI/ML with other technologies such as sensors, machines and human inputs will dramatically improve operations and likely lead to new forms of innovation and productivity in the industry.
Smart factory floors are often equipped with SERP systems, which stands for ‘self-healing error-proofing’. These systems use sensors to detect errors in real-time, then take corrective action to prevent them from happening again. This helps to reduce waste, improve quality and keep production lines running smoothly.
Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
ERP can be a game-changer in a sector such as manufacturing where efficiency is king. ERP acts is a centralised method of managing every aspect of facility operations and processes and allows for unprecedented visibility, coordination and management across the disparate processes that make up a manufacturing business — ultimately resulting in greater operational efficiency.
Given the numerous processes that must occur every day just to keep a facility running, ERP and manufacturing are natural bedfellows. Not only can ERP aid inventory management, supply chain, maintenance and quality assurance, it also enables these processes to talk to each other.
Cloud computing is a must for smart factories. That’s because cloud-based systems offer the scalability and flexibility that smart factories need to stay agile. Plus, they can help to reduce costs by eliminating the need for on-site hardware and software.
By delivering computing services such as servers, storage, databases, networking, software, analytics and intelligence over the internet (or cloud) manufacturers can achieve faster innovation, flexible resources, and economies of scale. Cloud services typically operate a pay as you use model, helping companies lower operating costs, run infrastructure more efficiently, and scale as business needs change.
As well as cost and speed, other advantages of cloud services include being able to deliver the right amount of IT resources when they are needed, and from the right geographic location; eliminating the need for complex on-site infrastructure such as ‘racking and stacking’, hardware setup, software patching, and other time-consuming IT management chores; and of course, increased reliability and security. In addition, many cloud computing services run on a worldwide network of secure data centres, which are regularly upgraded to the latest generation of fast and efficient computing hardware.
Edge computing is another important piece of the smart factory puzzle. Edge computing systems are designed to process data locally, rather than sending it to the cloud, bringing enterprise applications closer to data sources such as IoT devices or local edge servers. This helps to improve response times and reduce latency, which is critical for manufacturing applications. This proximity to data at its source can deliver strong business benefits such as faster insights, improved response times and better bandwidth availability.
Fundamentally, data is processed and analysed closer to the point where it’s created. Edge computing can help unlock the potential of the vast amounts of data being created by evermore powerful connected devices. This increased analytics capability in edge devices can power innovation to improve quality and enhance value, plus provide deep insights and predictive analysis in near-real time.
A digital twin is essentially an assistance system for production facilities which uses integrated simulation models to find solutions quickly when problems arise.
These simulations give operators a glimpse into the heart of physical assets to determine ideal operational workflows, drawing on current data flows to swiftly find clear options to help the system operators reach a decision; without the time and cost that would be involved in testing theories in the real world.
These highly complex virtual models act as an exact counterpart (or twin) of a physical ‘thing’. Connected sensors on the physical asset collect data that can be mapped onto the virtual model. Operators looking at the digital twin can see crucial information about how the physical thing is performing in the real world.
Digital twins are vital tools to help engineers and operators understand not only how products are performing, but how they will perform in the future. Analysis of the data from the connected sensors, combined with other sources of information, allows accurate predictions to be made.
As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into making a smart factory tick. But with the help of these cutting-edge technologies, smart factories are able to operate at a level of speed, precision, and flexibility that traditional factories simply can’t match. And as the world increasingly relies on digital manufacturing processes, smart factories are only going to become more prevalent – and more important.
Want to know more?
All the technologies that are driving the digital manufacturing revolution will be on display at Smart Factory Expo, taking place at the Exhibition Centre Liverpool.
Do you work for a manufacturing company? Find out why you should attend Smart Factory Expo.
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