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Advanced Engineering 2021

NEC Birmingham(B40 1NT)

03/11/2021 - 04/11/2021

Join us in our 12th and most important edition to date, as we invite engineers and management from all (more)

Delivering the factory of the future: the transition from digitalisation to Industry 4.0

Delivering the factory of the future: the transition from digitalisation to Industry 4.0

Steve Sands of automation specialist Festo explores the practicalities involved in delivering the factory of the future, and shares some first-hand experiences about the impacts of increased automation on people and their roles.

More and more companies are beginning to appreciate and embrace the concept of Industry 4.0 and the potential to improve production efficiencies, reduce costs, and be more receptive to customer demands. Yet there is an understandable concern about how full automation can be achieved in practice, and how it might impact the workforce.

Digitalisation is a stage on the journey towards full Industry 4.0 adoption, and offers practical lessons for what will be achievable as Industry 4.0 technology becomes the norm. As a global manufacturer of industrial control and automation components, Festo wanted to maximise its own use of emerging technologies, experience the benefits at first-hand, and better understand the impact on people and processes. Our factory at Scharnhausen in Germany became a test-bed for transitioning to an Industry 4.0 environment.

The Scharnhausen Technology Plant is Festo╒s main production facility for valves, valve terminals and control electronics, covering 66,000m2 of space arranged over four levels and housing a workforce of around 1,400 people. It is at the forefront of automation for the future and is a constantly evolving environment for intuitive human-machine interfaces, training and qualification, and innovative technologies.

To create the Industry 4.0 environment, intelligence has either been piggy-backed onto existing machines or, where the opportunity arose, embedded in new equipment. For example, Scharnhausen uses Near Field Communications (NFC) for digital maintenance support. This means that equipment components can exchange data directly with the maintenance team without passing through a central database.

For the maintenance team, this presents new ways to interact with the factory equipment and gather useful data. Their main tool is a tablet equipped with a custom-developed app which, together with a mobile depth sensor, enables the user to access more information the closer they are to the components requiring attention. At a high level, the tablet may show an overview graphic of the entire plant layout, together with alerts that follow a simple grading system to indicate their urgency. This makes the team far more responsive because they can direct their resources to the highest priority notifications first.

Where intervention is necessary to resolve an issue, co-ordination of people and parts is much slicker in the automated factory. The team can check the availability of components and tools so that everything necessary to undertake a scheduled maintenance task is to hand where and when it is needed. Using their tablets as an interface, the engineers can access information directly from the machine and its component parts, including instructions and detailed 3D models of the machine. They can even access detailed technical manuals or online help direct from equipment suppliers.

Clearly, this level of automation has meant significant changes for our people. First and foremost, they are now able to take a fully proactive approach to maintenance. The ability to analyse condition data and interrogate an alert from anywhere within the factory means they are more mobile, more responsive and more efficient. The ability to access real-time information and analyse the situation before making any intervention has led to better man management. Automatic ordering of tools and parts has increased efficiency by eliminating journeys between the stockroom and the machines requiring attention.

There is now a greater emphasis on understanding why a situation arose and how to solve it, capturing and sharing this knowledge around the team. Regular, repeat tasks therefore become easier because the engineer can benefit from shared experience for faster fixes and improvement suggestions. To aid knowledge sharing, a training and learning facility has been embedded right at the core of the factory.

While Scharnhausen is a compelling example of how the adoption of Industry 4.0 can deliver positive change, there are still major challenges ahead. One aspect that should not be underestimated is the changing relationships between humans and machines. Increased automation means that there is less human control required, but far more data available. This redefines the role of the humans involved: from data gatherers to interpreters and analysts.

Forthcoming Industry 4.0 developments will see machine learning becoming more common, with embedded intelligence allowing AI algorithms to detect data patterns indistinguishable to human minders and to propose corrective measures. Whilst in some applications a business case can be made now for the added sensors, intelligence and communications involved, the costs if implementing full automation will decrease rapidly due both to economies from the acceptance of standards and the cross-over of ideas between the consumer, IoT and industrial ╥Industry 4.0╙ worlds. For example, a joint research project called ParsiFAL is already developing better methods of data gathering: the prototype device has no standard battery or power source, but is looking at ways of harvesting energy from a magnet within a reciprocating pneumatic or hydraulic piston to charge the sensor that measures and periodically wirelessly transmits data.

Augmented reality is another area under development. The concept of a Digital Twin ╨ a CAD-generated model that enables designers to simulate how a machine will function ╨ is already possible. Industry 4.0 would see this model being taken much further, so that it can emulate its physical counterpart in real time throughout its operational life. Information about smart components will be held within the model and continuously updated. The Digital Twin of the future will capture information about modifications as they are made, eliminating the need to revise technical manuals as variations to the original design are introduced by ensuring the latest information is always available.

The role of data will drive business models in the future, but there are still big questions being asked around the ownership and interpretation of data, as well as access and privacy issues to be addressed. Relationships between who generates, owns or uses data captured by Industry 4.0 enabled devices may well result in new industry sectors, with some companies specialising in buying and selling data while others focus solely on its interpretation and application. The opportunities are very exciting, with OEM and End Users identifying the business cases for Industry 4.0 investments as the pace of development of the necessary standards, technologies and products take shape.

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