The Future of Manufacturing – What Changes and What Are the Implications?
Have you thought that what will change on the shop floor in the future, what is needed to implement the changes, and what are the implications? It is a very relevant topic now, and let us share our knowledge and thoughts on two levels:
- Smart factory referring to changes within a single factory
- Hyper-connected factories referring to changes in the network of factories
What is a smart factory?
A smart factory can be considered as the outcome of the fourth industrial revolution. It’s a highly digitalised and connected factory where all of its bits and pieces such as machines, systems, and humans can communicate together and work towards a common goal. The main driver behind this trend is the end-customer needs. Demands for manufacturers to create more individual and customised products is ever increasing. Manufacturing companies need to do something to overcome this challenge.
What changes on the shop floor?
From the machining-point of view, 5-axis machining is becoming more common. This is because 5-axis machines can produce broader ranges of different workpieces and more efficiently than 4-axis machines for example.
Furthermore, additive manufacturing is now actually hitting the shop floors. As is, additive manufacturing is not enough to manufacture functional parts and the process chain typically includes additional operations. This includes things like heat treatment, support structure-removal, quality assurance, and in many cases, also subtractive processes. In this context, smooth and flexible production means optimisation of many factors, which is not possible without novel, system-level solutions.
Offline programming is also becoming more important. This is because of how it enables preparing new workpieces and processes without interrupting production and introducing them quickly when needed. As such, offline programming also calls for sophisticated production planning and execution software.
Digital twins are a step up from offline programming. Currently, many companies are calling all kinds of things as ‘digital twins’, but what the term actually refers to is the automatic two-way data sync between the physical product and its digital counterpart. If the automatic data transfer is only one-way, from physical to digital, then we’re talking about a digital shadow. Without any automated data transfer, we’re talking about a digital model. But how does this create value and what are the low hanging fruits?
First, digital twins can be utilised in training. Here, safe trial-and-error methods can be used without disturbing actual production. The opportunities for simulation and optimisation offer also very interesting. This is because it can be difficult to analyse what outcomes changes have in complex production systems. Here digital twin offers a safe sandbox for learning. Furthermore, maintenance can be optimised as digital twins allow for predicting errors via machine learning. It can also provide great opportunities for product development by enabling behaviour observation via the digital counterpart.
MES (manufacturing execution system) is an information system that monitors and tracks the manufacturing process on the factory floor. It works in near real-time to enable the control of various elements of the manufacturing process, making it a very hot topic in today’s manufacturing industry. Why is it relevant? When implemented well together with LEAN -principles, MES can help manufacturing companies live with an increasing level of complexity.
Before moving to the next level, let’s summarise the drivers behind smart factories. Machinery and processes are becoming more complex due to customer needs for customisation and part variability. From the perspective of manufacturing, for production-ensemble to play well together, system-level solutions are needed.
What are hyper-connected factories?
Hyper-connected factories go beyond one shop floor or building. Here, the process and players throughout the entire supply chain are connected and communication takes place over the whole network. The demands for hyper-connected factories lie in the nature of manufacturing: it always happens in some networks involving suppliers, partners, and customers. One has to be able to succeed and work efficiently in this environment. Technically speaking, this means data-sharing in the network. In turn, this creates transparency, traceability, and situational awareness.
Someday in the future, manufacturing operation management solutions will most likely be able to control resources on a network level. In the world of hyper-connected factories, one could know in practice when the parts needed in their assembly are arriving and that the necessary quality features and checks are fulfilled (without asking or checking separately).
Although hyper-connected factories are widely discussed today, implementations are scarce. Fastems has some large enterprise-level customers with whom we are developing solutions together. The technical enablers required for hyper-connected factories are out there: connectivity, data-sharing, and information security to name a few. Things get more challenging however when it comes to building trust within networks, culminating in questions around data ownership and security.
There are three takeaways for manufacturers who want to implement the newest technologies in ways that add actual value. Together, these three points create a vision and give direction on where to go and what to achieve:
- Investing in agile, future-proof solutions.
- This means e.g. paying attention to connectivity capabilities.
- Not falling in love with technology – it’s only a tool.
- Concentrating on creating customer value. Business is always human-to-human at the end of the day.
- Always considering continuous improvement.
- Nothing remains static for long, so advanced planning is relevant.
Fastems – Towards a Digital Twin
Fastems – Offline programming for Robotized Finishing Cells