by Andrew Brooks
As computing technology becomes more powerful and pervasive, Industry 4.0 moves from sci-fi to reality
Until very recently, Industry 4.0–also called the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” or “Smart Factory”–was considered the stuff of science fiction. Just a few years ago, the idea of fully automated manufacturing, driven by autonomous, digitally connected devices and machines that communicated with each other, monitoring themselves and the manufacturing process instantaneously without any human involvement, was simply beyond the capability of computing technology.
But it’s been a dream for a long time. One of the first attempts to realize the dream was undertaken by GM a few decades ago. That’s when the automaker launched the first instance of what it called “the factory of the future.” At a steering gear facility in Saginaw, MI, GM unveiled a fully automated manufacturing plant that worked without human operators.
“The facility ran under pretty much the same definition as Industry 4.0 today, but this was back in 1984,” says Frank Powell, general manager of grinding products for Marposs Corp., who remembers the project.
“The only thing that failed on them was the fact that computing power wasn’t strong enough back then. It simply kept crashing.” Nonetheless, the project ran successfully for a while before the computing woes escalated and GM closed the plant.
Marposs, which builds quality control systems for manufacturing, has its roots on the shop floor. Its first product was an in-process gauge for a grinding machine, “probably the worst environment to put a precision instrument into,” Powell says. As information technology has become more powerful and pervasive over the years, Marposs has increasingly set its sights on Industry 4.0 as a benchmark for quality management systems. And it’s not alone.
“With respect to automating quality management processes, the goal [of Industry 4.0] is to consistently make quality parts and correct deviations before they cause interruptions in productivity or defective parts,” says Jamie King, regional manager, Canada for Blum-Novotest Inc.
“Where metrology in automation in Canada is concerned, the aircraft and mould and die industry were the first to really take advantage of these technologies and it’s been expanding from there.”
King points out that as technology continues to evolve, human involvement is steadily declining, while the data gathered by lasers, probes and other sensors and fed to computers is allowing those computers to make autonomous decisions about how to manage the process of manufacturing and quality control.
The goal is to move quality management further up the process, King says, using technology such as Blum-Novotest’s laser measuring systems to measure and check tooling before they even touch the part, or software such as Canon Engineering’s tool monitoring and adaptive control (TMAC) system to monitor tooling while it’s in-cut and adapt to conditions dynamically.
“We have to get away from measuring a part in the QA lab and having a string of defective parts that were continuing to be manufactured in the meantime,” King says. “In many instances we have the ability to do this before the part’s even cut.”
With enhanced automation and verification in place, King says, shops can focus on refining other processes. “Having a stable process with minimal defective parts probably means that you have a lot of room to optimize your production with the introduction of metrology and other automation. We need to take
full advantage of these technologies to keep our industry competitive here in Canada.”
Alexander Zoller, CEO of Zoller Inc., adds that 100 per cent traceability and documentation of processes and tool data is another major objective for the next generation of automation.
“This is especially important for metal-cutting companies, who must have confidence in the precision and quality of bought tools,” Zoller says, from company headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Tool manufacturers are able to deliver a certified protocol where the inspection and precision of these tools is documented.”
For machining processes to be safe, and for machine and software systems to work together effectively, it has to be possible to call up ever greater volumes
of tool data from any location, Zoller says. And it has to be possible in an environment of increasing time pressures, tighter budgets and rising quality standards.
“Parts have to move through production more rapidly and leave in better quality than ever before,” Zoller says. “And despite all that, commercial considerations can’t be neglected either. That means that more flexibility is called for–from machines, from tools and also from the technologies they employ.”
The extraordinary amount of data that can be gathered from, and applied to, the manufacturing process also makes “batch of one” manufacturing possible, where every single part–in a production run of a dozen or a million–can be customized. Additive manufacturing, which is an ideal fit for an automated, digitally driven environment, brings the “batch of one” concept that much closer.
Also, the shortage of skilled labour means anything that can minimize operator intervention is more desirable for job shops looking at automation. And while it’s not necessary to wait for process or equipment problems to arise as a motive for moving to automation, King says defects that occur as a result of human error, or cutting tool failures, are always good places to start.
Automation can begin with something as basic as having a touch probe to check workpiece position before machining, or a basic tool measurement probe that can ensure that the drill didn’t break before the operator sends a tap in to follow.
From there, King says, managers can look at automating everything from tool measurement and verification, monitoring machining down to 1/100th hp to provide real time adaptive control of cutting parameters, to making offset adjustments based on data readings from a CMM or any digital gauging.
With Industry 4.0, companies can achieve more reliable processes thanks to the networking of all the elements of production, Zoller says. “A very important factor related to this networking is data consistency. At every step of production, the right data has to be provided. That means less machine downtime, less crashes and better part quality.”
Zoller also notes that the automation associated with Industry 4.0 plays a decisive role in enabling work to continue around the clock. “Robots work 24/7, completely unmanned, without any errors, allowing companies to achieve higher output, time savings and lower costs.” SMT