Intelligent factories that link up every part of the production chain with next generation wireless automation could mark a sea change in manufacturing.
The first industrial revolution began in the 18th century when the power of the steam engine was harnessed and manufacturing first became mechanised. The second revolution came about when mass production techniques were deployed in the early 20th century. And the third (the one we’re in now) came over the next few decades as electronic systems and computer technologies helped to further automate production lines. So what’s next?
According to some industry experts from the likes of Siemens and Bosch, a new period of manufacturing technology dubbed “Industry 4.0” will be upon us within the next couple of decades. At its core are cyber-physical systems made up of software, sensors, processors and communication technologies, according to Brian Holliday, divisional director of Siemens Industry Automation.
‘These are systems that have both a computational element and a physical interaction with the real world,’ he said. ‘What it essentially means is there will be increasing levels of intelligence in devices that are used in industrial environments like factories.’
Many of the individual technologies that lay the foundation for Industry 4.0 have emerged over the last 10 to 15 years, he added. These pre-existing technologies will be embedded into materials, parts and the machines that work on them so they can communicate with one another in real time and exchange commands as products make their way down the production line.
‘We’re moving on to being able to communicate wirelessly with a broader range of devices in an industrial environment,’ said Holliday. ‘That means, for example, not just the internet of things, as we would understand it in the consumer environment, but intelligent industrial devices communicating with each other in a way that is dramatically beyond what is available today.’
Up until now there hasn’t been a way of linking the isolated elements of production chains, according to Dr Werner Struth, who sits on Bosch’s management board and oversees production system development among other things. ‘Now, data network technology such as RFID [radio-frequency identification] chips – mini transponders – offer the opportunity to gather more data and to map entire production units, stretching all the way from the supplier to the customer,’ he said.
In other words, each product has its own digital information embedded into it that it can share with machines via radio signals as it moves along the production line. Bosch has already started testing the feasibility of RFID technology in production lines at its Homburg plant, in Germany, where the company manufactures diesel injectors.
‘The entire in-house logistics process is controlled using RFID chips,’ said Struth. ‘These even make it into the crates delivered to the customer, where they keep an exact tab on the contents of the boxes. Once the customer has emptied a crate, this prompts an electronic request asking us to manufacture another shipment.’
It is easier for manufacturers to produce customised products when each product has its own digital tag, according to Holliday, who added that there has been a rise in customer expectations in the automotive sector when it comes to customising a vehicle. ‘This is placing demand on the production environment, which means we are now looking at factories that are not just mass producing but are able to customise and mass produce. So customised mass production,’ said Holliday.
This idea ties in with the opportunities that 3D printing is creating for more customisable manufacturing. But while some have said that additive manufacturing itself represents a new industrial revolution, Industry 4.0 is a more encompassing concept. ‘If you’ve got an intelligent factory that has removed the data discontinuities between what the ERP (enterprise resource planning) system has clearly identified as customer orders right through to production scheduling and the materials needed, then the ability to produce customised goods on a mass scale is improved,’ said Holliday.
The term “Industry 4.0” was first coined by a group of scientists and business/industry executives that advises the German government on how to develop its technology strategy. And the German government recently pledged €200m to help industry associations, research institutes, and companies create an implementation strategy for Industry 4.0. Germany’s National Academy of Science and Engineering even argues that this new technological revolution could lead to a 30 per cent increase in industrial productivity.
‘At this point in time, nobody is in a position to prove – or disprove – this claim,’ said Struth. ‘The 30 per cent figure is more of a symbol that there is room for significant improvement in productivity.’ The exact efficiency savings will vary depending on the particular area of application, he added. ‘To increase the efficiency of complex, large-scale series production by 30 per cent is undoubtedly a challenge, but small-scale series production might see even greater advances in productivity.‘
But Germany isn’t the only country looking towards the next generation of manufacturing processes. In April, UK science minister David Willetts selected robotics and autonomous systems as one of the “eight great technologies” that the government believes the UK will excel in and deserve particular support. He awarded the research field £15m in a bid to increase the strength and productivity of research.
Meanwhile, Robert Harrison, professor of automation systems at Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) told The Engineer that the core themes that make up Industry 4.0 have been emerging in research and development facilities across the UK. For example, WMG has been producing 3D visualisations of production machines for Ford’s engine assembly machines ahead of their physical build at a factory in Dagenham in east London.
‘It is happening here but the German’s have some well written documents and funding strategies for it. I guess the research councils and other bodies here are looking at aspects of that,’ said Harrison. ‘I think introducing an Industry 4.0 initiative in the UK would pull together a number of different areas under the theme of integrating systems and address industry’s future needs in a cohesive way.’
The next generation of manufacturing isn’t without its challenges. ‘Industry 4.0 requires a certain level of openness from all market players, that is to say standardization, in particular when it comes to exchanging data,’ said Struth. There is also a call for solutions that can be integrated into the existing manufacturing base in a smart and cost-effective way.
‘Industry 4.0 is a 20-year journey,’ said Holliday. ‘It’s not something that’s going to come about in two or five year’s time … But the work that goes in now to create the platforms, the protocols and the connections between the smart devices that will enable the digitally designed factory environments, that is envisaged by programs like Industry 4.0.’