The shift to smart factories: 7 manufacturing innovation trends
Today, innovation has been permeating all facets of our life. Manufacturing is one of the most vivid examples of the inevitable power of innovations and industrial breakthrough.
We're already on the verge of Industry 4.0 driven forward by innovations in automation, AI, and IoT. No doubt, the way factories operate is constantly changing, leaving significant footprint on the world around us.
What does Industry 4.0 stand for?
Industry 4.0 presupposes integration of manufacturing automation and data exchange to encourage innovations and smart factory. Such factories will be controlled by a virtual production line that runs systems and monitors and completes their physical processes. Communicating in real time and ensuring the quality of its operations, connected software systems will be running physical manufacturing automatically. So, it’s quite logic that smaller, more agile companies are the ones rapidly innovating in the world of manufacturing.
Invention or innovation?
It’s important to distinguish between inventions and innovations. Invention is a subset of innovation. The power of innovation lies in new value creation on a commercial scale. When an invention is exploited successfully commercially, it becomes an innovation. For instance, the electric bulb is a great invention, but producing them in bulk, and serving millions of customers is what made it an innovation.
Innovation also can be defined as something that adds value to what you are already doing, in a unique, unprecedented way which has the potential to add value to the community/ stakeholders.
The cornerstones of manufacturing innovation
Innovations strategy and culture serve for encouraging innovations in a thoroughly-tailored systematic way. The creation of a culture of innovation helps the cause of serial innovation. To successfully create and commercialise inventions, companies must commit themselves to the process of innovation.
Favorable atmosphere for innovations is of crucial importance, for it’s exactly what makes creativity to prosper, boosting innovations as a consequence.
Design is the first outside manifestation of an innovation that gives life to an innovation in future. Without a design, an innovation remains in the mind of the innovator.
Value delivery through innovation. Engineering makes production on a large scale possible, allowing it to become transferable to many locations, letting the finished product reach the masses. Engineering and production are the most important means to deliver on the promise.
So, what are 7 manufacturing innovation trends that are powering the shift to smarter factories?
1. Virtual manufacturing
In any manufacturing process, being able to do something exactly right the first time is ideal. Knowing precisely what an outcome will be, based on the decisions, can eliminate any wasted time or resources, by being able to essentially manufacture something virtually. That is, a team can perform its manufacturing process digitally, with each step of the process done visually in a near-animated process.
They can understand how the procedure will go before the actual physical manufacturing takes place. This process is already under way in many industries, including auto manufacturing. It’s allowing companies to save money, simplify operations and get products to market much faster than ever before.
For instance, Boeing, has already started using augmented reality in their assembly processes. They've been using Google Glass and Skylight software to give technicians valuable insight and instructions when completing complicated wiring tasks.
It's likely that other industries will adopt similar uses for the technology, allowing their output to be built with the utmost precision.
2. Micro manufacturing and machine vision error detection
Micro manufacturing is used to create the tiny components in a variety of different devices, including cutting-edge medical equipment that allows doctors to treat patients without resorting to invasive surgery. With technology as mobile and lightweight as it is, the micro molding process is the essential method for creating the internal machinery that designers are dependent on to create these products.
On the other hand, new technologies are allowing us to detect faults in production processes. To illustrate, Landing.AI is a company that creates smart technology that can find the tiniest of faults in circuitry of a machine that might not be immediately apparent to a human. As machinery in smart factories will all be connected and communicating with each other, the AI will send an alert when a fault is found, immediately halting the machine in question so that it can be fixed.
3. Industrial robotics
Today, industrial robots are very sophisticated with the ability to be easily programmed to handle more than just a single, repetitive job.
Thus, in 2016 General Motors announced that they would be adopting a robotic glove designed by NASA, for use by their factory workers. The glove is based on a design that was created for use on the International Space Station. There are numerous benefits of such a glove for the workers, including strain reduction for the workers' arms and better grip when lifting heavy items.
While robot workers are becoming increasingly common, human workers are likely to wear robotic implements like these gloves to aid in their work in future.
4. Sensors on the workplace
With factories gradually filling with autonomous machines, it's imperative that there are proper structures in place to prevent any accidents. One key component of this is sensors which allow machine-to-machine communication.
For example, TE Connectivity is a company producing sophisticated sensors that transmit data between industrial machines and smart devices, keeping everything running smoothly.
5. Fully automated warehouses and smart recycling
The Ocado Warehouse is a perfect example of the warehouses of the future. The automated warehouse is staffed by a team of robots that empty, transport, and replace batches of products. Once the robots have chosen and transported products to a picking station, the products are then prepared for shipping by other robots and human workers.
Another example is Apple’s recycling robot Daisy that can strip apart iPhones and allow the materials to be reused. Such types of robots allows customers to safely dispose of their discarded smart devices. Secondly, it reduces the resources spent on sourcing the materials for new devices, as the materials can be taken from older models and reused.
6. 3D printing
The “printing” is actually manufacturing of a tangible object from an alloy or plastic based on a 3D image imported into the printing machine. This process is changing the importance of funding in manufacturing and in how long it takes to bring a product to market.
Both businesses and consumers will be benefiting from these manufacturing innovation trends, as people’s health and longevity are improved, communication becomes easier and manufacturing is simplified for a variety of companies.
MX3D's six-axis robot arm is one of the most exciting examples of 3D printing. Its arm can print and construct complicated metalwork in mid-air, from basically any angle. This improves not only the speed at which the parts or object can be produced, but also the structural integrity.
7. Exoskeletons for workers to ensure safety at work
Full-body exoskeletons are another piece of wearable tech designed to protect workers and increase their strength. It's the perfect compromise between an all-robot staff and protecting human jobs, as it gives human workers advantages in strength and stability usually reserved for their mechanical counterparts.
The Ekso vest is just one example of an exoskeleton designed for factory workers. The vest is already in use in a number of Ford factories, and employees have praised the device for allowing them to conserve physical energy throughout the workday while allowing them to lift weights that they otherwise would be unable to manage.
Conclusion: What's next?
We live in the era of constant transformations. Ability to be flexible and agile is one of the key qualities for success. Product and process innovation have been altering manufacturing already for decades. It goes without saying that the future will witness even more breathtaking technological disruptions, as research around nanotechnology and analytics start to impact numerous manufacturing applications.
Companies with an innovation edge featuring a clearly developed forward-thinking approach and readiness to rapidly adapt to innovative technology will have a strong competitive advantage. Only strong players will get a chance to fulfill established goals, provide goods and services for untapped markets, and, finally, to stay ahead of the competition!