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Building the smart factory of the future

13 December, 2017

Jonathan Wilkins at EU Automation, explains why increased levels of automation are a good thing.

There is a current industry trend that sees the phrase “Industry 4.0” bandied about as though we could all wake up tomorrow to the dawn of a new robotic future. In truth, the idea of the smart factory and intelligent robots has been around for a while now and we have nothing to fear.

Technological advances and the Internet of things have resulted in interconnected devices forming a convergence point between the physical and digital world. The more information stored in a system, the better positioned machines are to make smarter and timelier decisions about things normally left to human judgement.

Survival of the fittest

Despite these advancements, machines aren't taking jobs away from humans. The most successful smart factories still employ the same number of workers as roughly two decades ago. At the moment, the implementation of smart automation robots, rather than making humans redundant in the system, moreover changes our role from worker to overseer and improves overall productivity.

Machines must obey algorithms and can't make creative decisions when presented with unprecedented situations. Thus, the human role in factories has now started to shift towards programming and maintaining these machines.

Engineers in today's automated factory need to be as handy with a tablet as they are with a screwdriver and I think this change worries people; maybe even more so than if robots really were replacing the human element in manufacturing. If we relate this to Darwin's theory of evolution - as technology evolves, so does the need to adapt within our work roles.

In addition to worries regarding evolution, many companies are concerned about the risk for the stability of their already highly complex production and supply chain systems. They are reluctant to interfere with a functioning system unless the benefits are really clear.

New dawn

In the future, the sophisticated software implanted in factory equipment will help machines self-regulate and make more autonomous decisions. To be really effective the system must recognise errors and know how to correct them without manual intervention.

To get to this stage, the German and US governments have already allocated funds for strategic research and the implementation of Industry 4.0 and smart machines. Germany has dedicated €200 million for projects like BMBF’s it’s OWL or RES-COM. Similarly, the USA has launched several initiatives like the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition.

For most automation companies, the move will be a gradual one, an evolution rather than a revolution. This is why continuity with older systems will still be essential for manufacturing in the years to come.

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