TechBite on Factories of the future

Key insights taken from speakers at the IET Control and Automation Network’s Factories of the Future seminar

The next big revolution in manufacturing – coined ‘Industry 4.0’ – is underway, as we move from an analogue age into a fully digital one. Factories of the future will reach new levels of automation, with integration of systems stretching far beyond the shop floor into the office and supply chain.

And the role of engineers and operators looks set to change dramatically in order to meet developing customer demands for a more agile and flexible service.  

Although Industry 4.0 may be the future, the truth is that many of the underlying technologies have been around for some time, but only now has manufacturing brought them together to harness their full potential.

One of the main drivers has been consumers wanting more customised products – everything from personalised mobile phones through to cars and even the food they buy!

“You have to look at manufacturing in a different way than in the past,” notes Alan Norbury, Central Technology Officer, Digital Factory & Process Industries and Drives, Siemens. “In the past you would mass produce the same product, but now consumers expect customised products manufactured at the same speed and quality. There’s a need to use Industry 4.0 technologies and philosophies to address this challenge.”

Technical innovations in digitisation have changed the face of manufacturing most dramatically. The Internet of Things (IoT), big data, virtualisation and additive manufacturing – more commonly known as 3D printing – allows manufacturers to make a wider variety of products and tools more quickly and cheaply thanks to ability to virtualise prototypes and 3D print parts.

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Another key area is robotics, especially ‘cobotics’, which will see humans and robots working together, freeing up operatives from repetitive tasks as machines become more autonomous.

“Operators will be re-skilled enabling them to become more engaged in the virtual world in terms of cell design or overseeing machines rather than operating them,” notes Alan.

But issues around risk and culture are holding us back, as Jeremy Haddall, Chief Technologist, Digital Engineering at the Manufacturing Technology Sector (MTC) explains.

“There’s a perception of risk around robotics and autonomous systems because they’re seen to be dangerous, but if they’re implemented correctly there isn’t a big risk. We’ve advanced technically, but we haven’t had a cultural change yet. Some understand how they can be used, while others still think a robot means taking jobs away.”

More positively, horizontal innovation is rife in manufacturing as new techniques migrate across sectors.

“A considerable amount of this innovation is already being implemented in the automotive and aerospace sectors, however, many of these technologies will equally apply to other sectors such as food and beverage or pharmaceuticals. One sector can learn from another,” Alan says.

Industry 4.0

Communications is also key to the success of Industry 4.0, with secure communications needed between machine-to-machine, shop floor to office and across the supply chain. This covers a huge area, including concept of intelligent raw materials that use RFID to communicate with machines and the growth in intelligent use of data as a service.
“There’s tremendous value in dispatching an engineer before the machine’s failed,” says Steve Matthews, Consulting Systems Engineer at Cisco Systems. “IP (Internet Protocol) is replacing many shop floor legacy protocols, allowing machine builders to interact with machines via remote access.”

Something that’s become very relevant during the last several years is the idea of joining the traditional IT enterprise communications architecture with that of the shop floor. However, the connection of these two worlds is causing concern for both parties: “typically the IT dept are not skilled in the operational technology (OT) domain and vice versa,” says Steve.

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Cyber security

But once these two worlds together are joined together, one of the biggest challenges will be around security. And that’s why engineers are focusing on the importance of cyber security within the manufacturing environment and are looking at ways to best implement it.

“It’s important to stay one step ahead of the bad guys who are increasingly turning to OT networks as soft targets, with financial gain their main objective,” Steve notes.

Clearly there are many challenges to embracing the idea of Industry 4.0 but companies are beginning to look at what they must do to make it a reality. Engineers are excited by the new capabilities and innovations it can offer and business managers know they need to keep up with global competition. Together they will drive the implementation of Industry 4.0 technologies, turning today’s factories into tomorrow’s flexible manufacturing hubs.

Related resources

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