by Robin Stuhler
Countering increasing market pressure with interconnected solutions
Manufacturers are continually faced with the challenge of growing market pressures. Demands on the components are steadily increasing, competition continues to drive prices down and requests for customization are on the rise. In this environment, fabricators are less able to take advantage of the economics of scale or the lessons learned from repeat production. Individualization not only leads to additional market pressure, it also increases significantly the complexity of manufacturing and consequential costs. To be competitive in the future, companies must recognize and adopt advanced technologies at an early stage and embrace Industry 4.0 to maximize and optimize throughput.
Industry 4.0, also known as the Internet of Things (IoT), is intended to make the entire value chain more transparent and efficient as well as reduce complexity. Looking at the previous industrial revolutions–from the invention of steam engines, to the introduction of electrical energy, to programmable robots and information technologies–all have resulted in a productivity increase and led to a radical change in the manufacturing industry. The same can be expected from this fourth industrial revolution. [Figure 1]
Two main elements of Industry 4.0
Industry 4.0 is based on two main elements: cyber-physical systems and cloud computing. By merging the physical and virtual worlds, one can generate a virtual image of the factory using real-time data. Alone, this gathered data does not add value to a company. The value is only seen through the intelligent analysis of all the accumulated data. This paperless production environment compiles all the information a fabricator needs on a computer or mobile device. Tracking parts, monitoring all processes and improving the entire value chain are only a few of its many advantages. Predictive data can also be used to schedule service or machine maintenance, which can be highly beneficial in avoiding machine errors or failures. In addition, smart algorithms can be used to create long-term and short-term forecasts.
Cyber-physical systems form the foundation of Industry 4.0. Embedded sensors and software are required for gathering information and communicating with other systems. The entire manufacturing process becomes more productive and flexible when a part can organize its own production. Simply by scanning a data matrix barcode marked directly on the part, a machine can gather information about the material, its thickness and any previous process that has already been completed. Since these “social machines” are linked and able to communicate with each other, they can exchange information such as the machine’s current status and capacity. Most importantly, the system can use this information to coordinate production and maximize efficiency. With a laser network, for example, when a punch-laser combination machine is punching, the laser beam can be redirected to a second system, such as a robot for laser welding. Sharing a single laser source between two or more machines maximizes its utilization while significantly reducing investment costs. [Figure 2]
With cloud computing, a shared pool of electronic resources can be accessed from anywhere and at any time. In the sense of “infrastructure as a service,” this includes storage systems as well as networks, servers, applications and services. This significantly increases the flexibility of a company since software can be flexibly adapted to the hardware, capacities can be changed at short notice and any maintenance or updates can be implemented without stopping production. In practice, this means a robotic welding system can access the servers and automatically download the offline program for the current part as well as the associated welding parameters that will enable an aesthetic and strong seam. A database of values provides for high quality results instantly and without any tests or samples required.
Building a better factory
Ultimately, Industry 4.0 is based on just a few key components: intelligent software that assists operators and eliminates errors, decentralized intelligence that supplies a rich and downloadable database of parameters for flexible and autonomous production, as well as maximum resource utilization, and real time feedback that not only guarantees transparency throughout the factory, but also provides a stronger connection between machines and humans for a consistent flow of useful and useable information. Solutions that support these concepts are already available on the market and implementing them effectively will become increasingly crucial for manufactures across all industries.
Industry 4.0 has already begun. Where does your company stand? SMT
Robin Stuhler is a sales engineer with TRUMPF.