Disruptive Technologies in Manufacturing

Jan. 18, 2018
As we launch into 2018, here’s a look at some of the key technologies that can not only disrupt, but also revitalize manufacturing in the coming year.

When thinking about the term “disruptive technologies,” I focus on disruptive technologies used in manufacturing because manufacturing is where I spend my life. But it’s also true that most of the disruptive technologies we currently talk about have applications both in consumer products and manufacturing.

The disruptive manufacturing technologies of 2018 include things like the rapid increase in quantity and capability of robots in the factory as well as the workplace; industrial use of 3D printing; virtual reality moving from the gaming industry to the factory floor; artificial intelligence at all levels; and, certainly not least of all, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Disruptive technologies have revitalized manufacturing at other times in history, just as these current technologies are doing today. We can all remember from our history classes the first industrial revolution that took place in Europe in the 18th century. This was when mechanization first took place—water and steam power were harnessed to power new factories across the continent.

The current collection of disruptive technologies has been grouped together as Industry 4.0, a term that was introduced at the Hannover Fair in 2012, where a German working group defined the guiding principles for the fourth industrial revolution. Following the first industrial revolution, which began in the 1780s, the second industrial revolution took place in the early 20th century when mass production—the assembly line, with the help of electricity—enabled the rapid rise of American industrial production. The third industrial revolution took place in the latter part of the 20th century with the introduction of computers, which allowed high levels of automation on the factory floor. And now, in this decade, we have the fourth industrial revolution.

Four principles make up the focus of Industry 4.0: interoperability, information transparency, technical assistance from artificial intelligence, and the decentralization of decision-making. Interoperability enables machines, devices, sensors and people to connect and communicate with each other via IIoT. Information transparency is what enables digital system virtual copies of the physical world. Technical assistance, as defined by Industry 4.0, is the assistance that the digital systems provide to humans, enabling them to make more informed decisions and solve problems. Decentralized decision-making is the concept that systems are autonomous—able to make decision and perform tasks on their own without human intervention. These concepts are certainly disruptive. Implementation of Industry 4.0 is moving forward, but for many at a controlled pace. In spite of the power released, the leap is too great to make in a single bound.

Industry 4.0 and IIoT promise to decrease costs and increase output by connecting plants with suppliers, warehouses and distribution systems. Condition-based predictive maintenance in factories can increase machine uptime and production as well as performance.

One of the most beneficial aspects of IIoT for manufacturing is process analytics. Analytic methodologies focus on improvement opportunities of key performance indicators (KPIs) such as yield, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) or non-standard downtime. Analytics in operations has the potential to add millions of dollars to bottom lines by optimizing yield, reducing energy consumption, refining product quality and improving machine/equipment utilization. As IIoT reaches full potential productivity, maintenance, security and efficiency of many industrial applications will be boosted. The foundation of the fourth industrial revolution has been built soundly.

We have listed robots as one of the disruptive technologies making changes in 2018. Robots—and the dream of intelligent working robots—have been with us for a very long time. As early as 1495, long before even the first industrial revolution, Leonardo da Vinci designed the first humanoid robot. It was designed to sit up, wave its arms and move its head via a flexible neck. Thousands of other robots have been designed over the next 500+ years. In 2003, NASA used twin robots as Mars rovers. Robots have been used in industry for decades for activities like welding and painting automobiles. So, what is so disruptive about robots all of a sudden?

Until recently, most robots were fairly simple, single-application machines. It is only because of rapid advances in artificial intelligence that robots are advancing to the potential uses we now visualize. Rather than just being single-function devices with a few axes of motion, robots are being given brains. If robots can learn, improve and “think” in ways similar to humans, they can take on a whole new set of challenges. If robots can learn from themselves and learn from each other, their reality changes. The future of robots now appears unlimited. They are employed for an increasing range of jobs well beyond the production line. Robots are being built that can read emotions and talk. A robot recently advanced one step closer to human status when, in 2017, it was granted citizenship to Saudi Arabia. As part of this evolution, some robots are also taking on uncannily human-like appearances.

Industry 4.0 and the technologies it represents may be disruptive, but the disruptions they bring will be constructive and positive changes to our manufacturing systems and, in turn, our lives.

Bill Pollock is president and CEO of Optimation Technology Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Optimation, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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