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By Bob Beckmann, Missouri Enterprise's Project Manager and Industry 4.0 Champion

“Industry 4.0” or the “Factory of the Future” are not just buzz words in the aerospace and automotive industries. And concepts that were just dreams 10 years ago are now found on factory floors. They are trends changing the way manufacturing is advancing in the 21st Century.

robots assembling a car

Tech: Behind the Wheel

If history has shown us anything, tech is about to make the leap from the large facilities to small and medium sized operations around the globe.  So, we thought now would be a good time to explain what some of these technologies are and how they are being used on a daily basis.

Digitization

It’s hard to imagine that we live in a world with phones that have more computing power than an Apollo space capsule.  We have things available to us that George Jetson wouldn’t believe.  Technology advances and we all are just trying to keep up.

Manufacturing is going through some definite growing pains when it comes to technology.  Plants that have operated the same way for the past 70 years now find themselves having to adapt to a world that is instantaneous and custom.  Welcome to a true industrial revolution.

Automotive and aerospace companies are leading the way into the digital realm and here are the key areas they are focusing on.

Digital Operations

Although some companies are still using ledgers and spreadsheets, the digital trend is to move to a robust ERP system that can help manage the operation of a company.  Everything from raw materials to finished goods are organized with these systems and they can even be used to find the true finished cost of a product.

Supply Chain

A customer can now order an automobile online.  They can enter the model and every option they yearn for.  They press the buy button and immediately the company system goes to work.  Goodbye to the days of the scheduler, the buyer, the planner, and all of the paperwork associated with the purchase.  Now all of the data is immediately sent to the plant, to the tier 1 and tier 2 suppliers and back to the customer.  Very quickly, all of the production dates are confirmed, the parts are ordered, and the customer knows exactly when the new vehicle will be delivered.  They can even go online during the process and see precisely where in the production process the vehicle stands.

Engineering / Digital Plant Floor

The days of drawings are quickly fading.  Now CAD models are created in the engineering department and those models are used to make the parts.  The files are sent to the mold maker or to the machining center or the 3D printer and the process begins.  When the finished parts arrive, the same models are used for inspection (sometimes done with digital comparison lasers) and the assembler uses a screen at their station to see the same models to make sure the final parts are put together correctly.

Cybersecurity

With all of this data, every company needs to be acutely aware of the threats facing their company.  This is not about someone stealing your production data, but rather someone stealing the most valuable thing on your computer – your money.

Every company has a list of all current (and some past) employee.  They have that employee’s name, address, phone number, social security number and most likely their bank account number if you offer direct deposit.  Oh what a treasure for a bad guy!

When was the last time you had a true cybersecurity test of your system?  And you say you are okay because all of your computers have up to date antivirus software?  What about that computer on the plant floor that runs on Windows 95 because the machine it is hooked up to was never upgraded?  I bet any 8th grader could hack into that little gem.

 

3D Printing

The technology for Additive Manufacturing (AM) has been around for a few decades now but was only available to companies who had deep pockets and standing usage.  Now, versions of this type of equipment are available in box stores or online and has become so commonplace that it is used in grade schools across the country.  The utilization in manufacturing is something that was rare as little as five years ago but now is the fastest growing technology upgrade happening in manufacturing today.

In the aerospace world, engine and turbine parts as well as cabin interior components are typical applications for industrial 3D printing / Additive Manufacturing. These applications are prime targets for the technology because they are functional components with complex geometries / defined aerodynamic properties and they can be manufactured quickly and cost-effectively. Additionally, the design can focus on material and weight savings to help lower fuel consumption. Add to that the typical small production runs in the industry and it all adds up to strong arguments for Additive Manufacturing technology.

Cost reduction: Since part production using Additive Manufacturing does not require set-up and tooling costs, production costs are only incurred for the parts themselves, at the time they are manufactured. Even small production runs and one-off pieces do not cause added cost. In addition, system parts designed for optimum function can often be realized as a single part, simplifying assembly and quality assurance.

Lightweight design: Intelligent manufactured parts using laser sintering processes combine high strength with a weight reduction of 40–60%. The material savings translate into more flexibility in design and engineering. As a result, cars or airplanes consume significantly less fuel and emit less carbon dioxide.

NO Tooling: 3D printing technology enables maximum flexibility in production planning. In addition, toolless production processes require less energy and raw material than conventional manufacturing operations. Modified parts, upgrades and spare parts can be produced as needed, obviating the need for storage.

Finally, this industry is one that should be closely watched.  New materials such as metals, epoxies, plastics, ceramics and even food are not being printed.  So, if your company passed on this technology in the past, you may want to see what has changed since you started reading this article!

 

Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality

Virtual Reality (VR), sometimes referred to as Augmented Reality (AR), is quickly entering the manufacturing environment.  This quick growth should also cause more vendors to enter the field and therefore reduced pricing making the technology affordable for small and medium sized manufacturers.

VR is defined as “a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person. That person becomes part of this virtual world or is immersed within this environment and whilst there, is able to manipulate objects or perform a series of actions.” So how is VR benefitting the manufacturing sector? By improving worker safety, creating better products, and saving manufacturers money.

Improving Worker Safety

While safety has improved greatly over the years, any injury or fatality is one too many. Despite holding the title of our nation’s largest manufacturing sector, California has the fourth lowest rate of fatalities in the nation, and VR is poised to reduce that rate even further. VR allows plant managers to simulate the production process and assembly line configurations, identifying potentially dangerous situations. Virtual reality can also be used to immerse an employee in a future workstation, then capturing the employee’s movement to evaluate task feasibility and proficiency. Using VR, automotive giant Ford has reduced the injury rate of employees by up to 70%.

Creating Better Products

VR is making near-perfect assembly a possibility. Using goggles that employ cameras, depth sensors, and motion sensors to place images onto the real working environment, workers and engineers can “see” the proper parts and instructions on how to assemble a component the correct way.

Here are three manufacturers employing VR technology to build a better product.

  1. Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin is now using VR to build the F-35. At one time, the defense giant needed a team of technicians with years of training to work on the complicated machine, but now engineers are using VR glasses to ensure each part of the warplane is on just right. The company says that this technology has enabled engineers to work 30% faster with nearly perfect accuracy.

  1. Ford Motor Company

Ford may be a 115-year old company, but they remain on the cutting edge. The company has been using some form of VR since 2000 to fine-tune their designs. Another way Ford puts VR to use is to simulate road and weather conditions such as snow and rain to test mechanics from a driver’s perspective in order to create a safer product.

  1. Boeing 

Traditionally technicians had to look at and interpret a two-dimensional twenty-foot-long drawing and attempt to wire based on that document. By using VR, technicians can easily see where the electrical wiring goes in the aircraft fuselage. They can roam around the airplane and see the wiring renderings in full depth within their surroundings and access instructions hands-free.

Saving Money

To get products that meet specifications, prototypes must be created, tested, and then retested. This can get very expensive. Using VR, manufacturers like Boeing are eliminating the need to build full-scale models. Using Microsoft’s VR technology, HoloLens, engineers are able to see each piece of equipment involved in the design of a product and put it together in the virtual world before constructing it for real. Using this approach, Boeing believes it will cut training time by 75% per person, saving millions.

Over the next 5 years, it’s predicted that VR technology will be doubling in pixels for better image rendering, widening its field of view, and developing better virtual sound amplification. For manufacturers already in the VR realm, these improvements will help drive efficiencies, increase productivity, and save both lives and money. For those not yet engaging with VR technology, the good news is that by the time its usage becomes more widespread, any kinks will be ironed out so that you’re working with the very best version of VR available.

 

Cobots

As the internet of things grows exponentially, collaborative robots are starting to become commonplace in the manufacturing cycle. Collaborative robots, or cobots for short, are robots that work in a shared physical space with humans, allowing humans and robots to work together. Cobots have risen in popularity since 2010, and in many situations are preferred to traditional manufacturing robots that are designed to work in a segregated area with little to no interaction with people. 

The Cobots market is expected to grow significantly in the next decade. There are several reasons why this growth is expected. There is an increasing demand for automation across all industries, but particularly where tasks can often be repetitive and have the potential for injury. Adding to this, cobot technology is advancing every year. Cobots are becoming more widely available, and less expensive. These dropping prices and increased functionality are likely to encourage cobot adoption in small and medium-sized enterprises that in the past may have overlooked the technology.

There are several situations in which robots working in tandem with employees can lead to a highly efficient, flexible, and reliable production process. For example, cobots can be used in product assembly, product pick and place process, injection molding, placing of parts, and quality inspection.

Heavy lifting is one area where collaborative robots can really help improve efficiency to production cycles, as well as reducing the risk of injury to employees. Some Cobots are designed to work on repetitive heavy lifting jobs like those found in the packing and distribution, automotive, and metalworking industries. These robots are designed to work in the same space as human workers and stop moving when they are touched. 

Some heavy lifting cobots require a human to line the object up for them before they begin the lifting process. A human conducting this task on their own may tire quickly of lifting heavy objects and need to take a break or find themselves slowing down. Similarly, a cobot may handle the heavy lifting but pick the item up in the wrong way which may lead to damaged items and costly consequences for the company. This is one example of humans and robots working together to reduce cost, improve the end result through precision, and maintain a fast-paced schedule. 

Let us take a look at some companies using cobots in their manufacturing cycle. 

Ford 

Ford has been using cobots since 2016 to help workers fit shock absorbers to their Fiesta model cars in their Cologne factory. These cobots are around 3 feet tall and are fitted to strategically placed mounts where than can work alongside people and relinquish them of some less desirable heavy lifting duties.  

BMW MINI

Collaborative robots are being used at the BMW MINI plant in Oxford, UK, to make the riveting process more efficient. Prior to the implementation of cobots, the end to end riveting process was conducted manually with the factory workers first loading the rivets and then performing the riveting. This cobot works in tandem with the worker, whose job it is to load one side of the jig, so the cobot can start working on the other.

Craft and Technik Industries (CATI)

CATI is an automotive component manufacturer based out of Maharashtra, India. They were facing challenges when it came to manual labor, as well as problems with faulty end products caused by human error. CATI wanted to reduce the number of customer rejections that were a direct result of these faulty outputs from the production line. They worked with a company called Universal Robots to find a cobot that could handle the correct payload and be able to work in an area with human workers rather than being fenced off.  Implementing the cobot has helped reduce customer rejections and increased production by 15-20%.

All of these technologies were just a dream a few years ago.  Today, they are reality and changing the way manufacturing is done worldwide.  With the expected continued shortage in workforce, these advances allow a company to optimize production, increase quality, and save money while attracting a workforce that loves to solve problems with technology.  They can only help to make your business stronger.

Please contact Missouri Enterprise if you would like more information or some assistance in getting these technologies into your building. Connect with your Area Business Manager to learn more!

Want more tips for first-time users on how to handle industrial robots? Download our “Manufacturer’s Guide to Robotics”.