Smart Factories – Is this the next step for our local manufacturers?
Whether it’s in one of our larger global backed manufacturing plants or a smaller specialised batch processing facility hidden away in the rural countryside of County Armagh, Down or Antrim, it’s very easy to see, that technology is having a profound impact on how factories operate today. The developments in new leading edge technology and its applications in our production plants, is making the process of manufacturing ever increasingly intelligent and dynamic – allowing the concept of a 'Smart Factory' to become a reality.
The term smart factory describes a production or manufacturing plant where machinery and equipment are able to improve processes through automation and self-optimisation. This concept is not constrained to robots on the factory floor and the production of goods. Its benefits extends its tentacles into other departments and functions including planning, supply chain logistics, and even product development.
However, the major benefits of the smart factory are highlighted more easily within the boundary of the workshop floor. The virtual structure of the smart factory is made up of a combination of production, information, and communication technologies, with the potential for integration across the entire manufacturing supply chain. All these different departments of production can be connected via the IoT (Internet of Things) or other types of advanced integrated networks, which enable sensing, measurement, control, and communication of everything that’s happening throughout the manufacturing process.
The key aspect of this environment, is the advances in technology of how production data can now be collected. These include the intelligent sensors, motors, and robotics present on production and assembly lines, that the smart factory puts in place.
Sensors make it possible to monitor specific processes throughout the factory, which increases awareness about what’s happening on multiple levels. For example, vibration sensing can provide a warning when motors, bearings, or other equipment need to be maintained. These types of subtle warnings become alerts, for preventative maintenance or other actions that head off larger production problems if left unattended.
Communication between the factory floor and the management floor, and the ability to use the manufacturing data, is what puts the ‘smart’ in 'smart factory'. The aim is to apply the intelligence that’s collected on the factory floor, to create a dynamic production environment, resulting in the reduction of costs through efficiency, while improving quality and reliability. Smart sensors on vibrating machinery could alert management, to the fact that pro-active maintenance needs factored in to prevent downtime, if ignored. The future of manufacturing in this country is for more customisation, so by minimising downtime for retooling and resetting equipment, manufacturers can operate more efficiently while staying flexible.
As the smart factory concept slowly emerges, the roles that people take on will evolve from what they are currently doing in today’s factories. People will take on more complex roles, while automation will conquer the tasks that are repeatable, mundane or impacted by labor shortages.
Technology is often seen as the enemy of the job market. However, there are many studies carried out that indicate that technology, overall, does not eliminate jobs. As factories get more technologically advanced, the number of indirect jobs needed to support them, will increase proportionately. In turn, new suppliers in new industries will emerge, fuelling the advancements from outside the smart factory.
The investment of building a smart factory benefits manufacturers, by creating a safer and more reliable plant. The demands on our own local manufacturing industry will continue, thanks to the trend for the smaller more specialised on-demand production, and ever present drive to reduce costs.
Trevor Bingham (firstname.lastname@example.org) is business relationship manager at ItFuel in Craigavon. Follow them on Twitter @itfuel.