A Closer Look at Smart Factories

Sarah is a sales & marketing content writer, with eight years of experience within the engineering & manufacturing industry.  Working both at Qimtek and on a freelance basis, she can usually be found hammering away at a keyboard or with her head in a pile of engineering drawings. 

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Industry 4.0 is here and the manufacturing industry is on the front line of the revolution. As the way that the industry operates undergoes drastic changes and adopts a more automated approach, factories are becoming smarter and production starts to rely more upon cooperation between humans and robots. The rise of automation has been questioned by some, but ultimately Industry 4.0 is here to stay and is only set to grow in the years to come.

Smart factories will become more and more commonplace as automation gains momentum, but what exactly does a smart factory look like?

What Is a Smart Factory?

READ: Industry 4.0 For SMEs - Where To Start?

More and more companies are utilising 4IR technology on a smaller scale and achieving part-automation.

Smart factories are the future of manufacturing - a marriage between traditional plant & machinery and the digital technology of Industry 4.0. They are designed to maximise efficiency within the production process - not only in real time, but also by collecting and analysing data to streamline future operations. 

Smart factories are a unity between the various aspects of Industry 4.0. The Internet of Things (IOT) allows communication between technology, while the analysis of big data affords users a forensic approach towards process optimisation. A smart factory offers seamless production; it utilises modern technology to maintain a tighter control over schedules, whilst the production methods themselves are assisted by the use of robotics.

Although truly 'smart' factories are still rare, more and more companies are utilising 4IR technology on a smaller scale and achieving part-automation. Indeed, the various facets of Industry 4.0 are not an all-or-nothing affair; instead, today's manufacturers are free to pick and choose the technology that suits their needs and build upon it over time. Full automation is not achievable overnight and requires an investment of both time and money - only once this is achieved can a factory be referred to as being truly smart.

Examples of Smart Factory Technology:

READ: Rise of the Robots! Tackling the Fears Surrounding Automation

Smart factories are not one-size-fits-all - instead, they incorporate a blend of technologies to achieve automation, communication and in-depth analysis of data. These technologies work together to increase efficiency and prevent errors from occurring, covering all of the possible bases to ensure that production remains at the top of its game.

Some examples of the technology used within a smart factory include:

  • Sensors
  • ERP systems
  • Robots/Cobots
  • Internet of Things (IOT)
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Big data analytics

Sensors play a huge part in the successful running of a smart factory, as they are able to serve a number of different purposes. From a quality perspective, sensors can detect any potential defects with both machines and the products they manufacture, meaning that any errors can be quickly corrected before production is severely impacted. Sensors are also able to detect when stock levels are low and collect big data for analysis.

Smart factories are not one-size-fits-all - instead, they incorporate a blend of technologies.

Meanwhile, Industry 4.0 often conjures up images of robots and indeed, no smart factory would be complete without them. Robots are often used to complete dangerous or labour-intensive tasks within a smart factory, although many still require an element of human assistance. These types of robots - or 'cobots', as they are commonly called - are a key feature of a smart factory and free up employees to complete other, safer tasks.

Artificial intelligence is another vital area of a smart factory. Machine learning is a form of artificial intelligence that allows machines to improve their own performance by studying and learning from their own algorithms and data. This area of AI is especially applicable to a smart factory application and will play a critical role in increased productivity within the factories of the future. In addition, autonomous, self-driving vehicles will be used to handle material, further eliminating risk to humans on the shop floor.

Of course, connectivity within a smart factory is essential and that means that software is vital to ensuring that operations flow seamlessly. The Internet of Things allows plant & equipment to communicate with each other through sensors and supporting software; this helps to make the production process as efficient as possible and again frees up employees' time to devote to other tasks. In addition, ERP software becomes an essential part of a smart factory; like the glue that binds all of its different components together. Most modern ERP software has the capabilities to analyse big data and connect machines, allowing for easy job allocation and transparency across the entire network.

READ: Big Data, Better Manufacturing!

What Are the Benefits of Smart Factories?

READ: Industry 4.0 - Is There Enough Support For SMEs?

Smart factories allow for a much higher degree of control within the production process, as they afford users the ability to understand key metrics taken from large data sets; meanwhile, machinery is able to improve its own performance by studying this data, meaning that productivity always remains at a high standard.

Smart factories make sense for businesses by cutting unnecessary costs.

Thanks to the delegation of labour-intensive and dangerous tasks to robots, smart factories are also exponentially safer than traditional shop floors. Whilst their mechanical co-workers are busy dealing with the undesirable tasks within the factory, human employees are free to concentrate on other areas, which streamlines the production process even further and ensures that time is not wasted. Connectivity and IOT also help to maximise output with a reduced input of time - many of the fiddlier aspects of production are removed altogether.

From a monetary standpoint, smart factories make sense for businesses by cutting unnecessary costs. Although smart factories are a considerable investment, they work to reduce expenditure within the production process. Wasted time and resources, such as materials, all add up to a sizeable expense over a period of time; smart factories reduce or otherwise eliminate waste, saving money wherever possible.

READ: Whiteland Engineering Increases Productivity With Self-Built ERP System

Are There Any Risks?

Smart factories may leave themselves vulnerable to cyber attacks.

With a greater reliance on technology, businesses with smart factories may leave themselves vulnerable to cyber attacks. Watertight cyber security is absolutely essential if businesses are to run a smart factory successfully; the cost of cyber attacks can quickly escalate - not only due to the costs of fixing machinery, but also as a result of any downtime incurred as a result.

Although many fear that increased automation and the arrival of the Fourth Industrial Revolution may make humans obsolete, this is not the case. Instead, it will likely lead to redistribution of tasks and job roles - indeed, the manufacture of 4IR technology will create plenty of job opportunities in itself, meaning that there is little threat to employment as a result.

READ: Is Automation the Best Way to Close the Skills Gap?

Factories of the Future:

Indeed, smart factories are set to become a staple part of the manufacturing industry over the coming years and decades. Automation is here to stay and is only going to grow in popularity as the applicable technology becomes more widely accessible. Whilst smart factories are still reserved for companies with large budgets to dedicate to the cause, the emergence of 4IR technology is already growing, as more and more companies recognise the benefits of embracing automation and Industry 4.0.

Although smart factories are far from being the norm, they do offer an insightful blueprint for the factories of the future. The Fourth Industrial Revolution marks an exciting time for the engineering and manufacturing industries at large - better production, better products and lower costs are there for the taking, thanks to the new wave of technology brought about as a result.