Smart manufacturing must be open to change — are you?

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Over the course of two weeks, I heard several industry experts echo a fascinating trend as they discussed the future of manufacturing. The factory of the future is going to have to be flexible and fast, using IoT and AI, to deal with customized products and designs.

Smart manufacturing Donna-Ritson DDR Communications

Four key components of smart technology are going to redefine the smart factory — efficiency, safety, flexibility and connectivity. Image courtesy of Donna Ritson, DDR Communications

The first person to describe this trend was Donna Ritson, during our Fluid Power Technology Conference in Milwaukee last month, where she gave a keynote presentation on the future of pneumatics and automation. Here she stressed the importance of four key components of smart technology that are going to redefine the smart factory — efficiency, safety, flexibility and connectivity. And machine learning or AI and the use of digital twins will be core to all of these, she said.

For example, she noted how custom manufacturing is a thing — cars are being built to the buyer’s specs.

“Any components that you want, any frills that you want on it, you get your car made going down the manufacturing line. Well, that same concept is coming into the CPG market … maybe you want to get a beverage and you don’t want to buy a 12-pack of one beverage. You want to have every flavor in that package,” Ritson said. “And that’s what’s driving a lot of this change in this ‘manufacturing of one’ now is to be able to accommodate that efficiently where they don’t have to send that out to now a secondary warehouse for it to be broken down and repacked into multiple packs or variety packs.”

Just a few days later, I had an opportunity to tour Bosch Rexroth’s Factory of the Future Experience at its Hoffman Estates, Ill., facility, where the company has developed an exhibit to highlight how it is using its various technologies to embrace this concept. Rexroth experts echoed Ritson’s words.

According to Heiko Schwindt, VP Automation & Electrification Solutions, USA for Bosch Rexroth, “Our customers are requesting more customization, there’s one-piece production. Higher productivity is clear — our machine builders want to increase productivity and save costs, with smaller batch sizes. And to support this we need a massive technology shift.”

This shift will include the need for an investment in higher connectivity, flexibility, intelligent systems, safety integrated into the automation system itself, and transparency.

Rodney Rusk, Rexroth’s I4.0 Business Leader – USA, drilled down further, adding that distributed intelligence will have to come down to the device level.

“That will allow us to have the ability to have mobile devices, where we can move machinery around, and begin to move the factory floor to accommodate what we need to build.”

It’s a far cry from where manufacturing is today, Rusk noted, adding that the use of digital twins will help make this possible.

“We are going to see more and more of that merger between the physical and cyber world here,” Rusk said. “It has to be a smart manufacturing floor and that smart manufacturing floor has to be open to change.”

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