Nigel Smith, managing director of TM Robotics, dispels some common misconceptions about implementing smart manufacturing.
Machine automation could be compared to the human body. Our eyes are the sensors that monitor operations. Our hands are the actuation to manoeuvre things around us. Finally, our brains are the process control, providing intelligence and managing processes. Traditionally, machines in industrial environments could only provide actuation, but not anymore.
Myth 1: Automation will replace humans
Humans have spent several thousand years reducing their need to take on physical labour by investing in tools and machinery. In automation terms, this mechanical muscle became an integral part of automotive manufacturing when six-axis robots became a standard addition to assembly lines in the 1960s. However, today’s automaton goes beyond physical actuation.
The threat of intellectually smart machines can often portray a depressing outlook for the job security of those working on manufacturing lines. However, the deployment of smart technology is certainly not the end of humans in the manufacturing and engineering realm.
Consider smart factory software as an example. Modern applications will often encompass a distributed control system (DCS) with supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA). This software can automate manufacturing processes, while collecting production data from the factory.
Naturally, implementing this software reduces the need for human intervention during operations, but humans remain the decisive factor. There is no advantage to collecting production data without plans to act on it. Manufacturers want software that can collect data in real-time and, more importantly, visualise this information in an intelligible format to enable employees to make informed decisions.
The human brain could never successfully acquire or comprehend the plethora of data that a SCADA system could. However, there is no reason that these new, mechanical minds cannot work harmoniously with the more subjective minds of humans.
Myth 2: Cutting-edge hardware is vital
Often, manufacturers overthrow existing systems with the delusion it lacks the functions required for smart manufacturing. However, a complete system overhaul is not necessary.
The transition to smart manufacturing is never simple, but manufacturers should always explore all options before disregarding the process as ‘too expensive’. For example, choosing process control software that is hardware-independent — or can operate on several different communication protocols — can eradicate the need to invest in an entirely new hardware system.
A smart manufacturing strategy should be put in place before any financial outlays are made. Manufacturers should carefully consider what they wish to achieve from the investment and make buying decisions based on these goals.
Electronic goods manufacturers, for instance, may prioritise fast speeds and high levels of accuracy to compete with cheaper manufacturing economies. For these manufacturers, investing in a SCARA robot with high levels of accuracy and repeatability would be ideal, particularly for pick and place functions.
Myth 3: Smart factories will never be secure
By implementing connected technologies, factories are no longer insular entities. By their very nature, smart factories are required to expand far beyond the walls of their own facility and become part of a larger eco-system. Naturally, this increased connectivity brings new operational risks and unfamiliar security challenges.
Manufacturers that implement Industry 4.0 technologies suffer many of the same cyber-security threats as other industries. Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs), for example, have been used against the manufacturing industry for years — using malware consistently to extract sensitive data.
However, not all cyber-security breaches in the manufacturing industry are a result of malicious attacks. When planning for Industry 4.0 implementation, manufacturers should also consider training their staff on the importance of cyber-security measures
As we enter the era of Industry 4.0, manufacturers should be prepared to witness significant changes to their production facilities. Despite common misconceptions, the transition to smart manufacturing is certainly not as threatening, expensive or dangerous as some manufacturers may believe.