Feature Story

The digital manufacturing revolution

by Anne Field

Collecting data from thousands of sensors, smart manufacturing plants will monitor and control all the tools of production.

Less downtime, fewer mistakes, and increased efficiency: They form the Holy Grail of manufacturing. 

Now Internet of Everything (IoE) technology promises to make that happen through the digitization of the production process--smart factories that can monitor and control all tools of production, collecting data from hundreds of sensors to make continuous improvements. That means the ability to do everything from detecting when machines need repair, thereby allowing plant managers to act before a breakdown happens, to viewing every point in the production process, ensuring real-time adjustments can be made to avoid bottlenecks.

“We’re on the forefront of the fourth manufacturing revolution,” says Steve Shepley, a principal in the manufacturing practice of Deloitte. While the first three involved steam power, the assembly line and automation, this one, says Shepley, encompasses “the introduction of smart, connected assets.”  It’s a revolution with the promise of huge rewards:  IoT applications in factory settings could create value of $1.2 trillion to $3.7 trillion per year by 2025, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

Already, some manufacturers, especially in the automotive and aerospace industries, among others, have introduced elements of these systems. Example: General Motors uses sensor-based systems to monitor humidity during the painting process, according to McKinsey; if it detects that conditions aren’t right, the part can be routed to another, more temperate part of the plant.

A Continuous Loop of Data Sharing

But a number of companies also are engaged in a highly ambitious effort: inventing comprehensive connected systems, in some cases teaming up with complementary businesses to develop the many pieces needed to create the digital puzzle.

Consider General Electric’s, “Brilliant Factory”, which aims to use IoE technology to transform the company’s 400 manufacturing and service plants. By digitally connecting engineering teams designing products to the factory floor, other supply chain partners and, finally, to  service operations, the company wants to build a continuous loop of real-time data sharing, enabling faster, more accurate decision making and an increase in productivity. “We are trying to develop a digital thread that will allow us to design, make and service our products better,” says Stephan Biller, chief manufacturing scientist. The result: a 20% increase in uptime and 10% rise in throughout, predicts Biller.

In dozens of pilots now underway, the company is testing out various parts of the process. GE researchers, for example, recently developed an app to use in the company’s turbomachinery businesses. It connects the factory floor with engineering to ensure that products in the design phase can be manufactured. When a designer creates a part, the app will provide real-time feedback on whether the thing can be made and what features should be adjusted. When a pilot is successful, with all the kinks ironed out, the system will be rolled out across factories with similar needs.

See also: Cisco Connected Factory-security

Many factories use a cacophony of IT systems for anything from energy management to maintenance that don’t communicate with each other. For that reason, a lynchpin of GE’s approach is a platform which integrates data in real-time. Then engineers can build applications on top of it. “There’s a ton of data coming in –- a million pie charts,” says Biller. “We need a way to make sense of all that information.”

Examples: predictive algorithms for maintenance that detect if, say, a machine is likely to overheat, alerting the line manager to schedule preventative repair. Data can also be analyzed for servicing finished products. An evaluation of the data could reveal, for instance, the cause of a particular error and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Another company, Airbus, is developing what James Smith, director of product marketing, embedded systems at National Instruments, calls “the factory of the future.” (National Instruments is working with the aircraft manufacturer on this effort). The first phase of the system, according to Smith, aims to reduce mistakes by giving workers real-time information to ensure they’re using the correct tools at the right setting and understand what they need to be doing at any given time. Sensors on smart tools will transmit information via Wi-Fi to workers who are, for example, drilling thousands of holes in an aircraft, letting them know when they’re within a few millimeters of the precise spot to focus on. Other sensors will detect the amount of torque used, say, to tighten bolts, allowing engineers to analyze the data, detect whether the task was done correctly and then step in to determine the cause of the problem.

More Collaboration

Creating this manufacturing revolution requires significant collaboration among companies. To that end, the Industrial Internet Consortium, is sponsoring a number of pioneering collaborative projects, called testbeds, focusing on different steps of the manufacturing process. For example, Infosys, working with Bosh, PTC, and Intel, are collaborating on an effort called the asset efficiency testbed; asset efficiency refers to reducing waste and improving the maintenance and uptime of any industrial asset in operations, maintenance, service, information and energy. In this case, the project is focusing on ways to use data from equipment and processes to give aircraft landing gear maintenance engineers information with which they can forecast and correct potential failures.

Ultimately, adoption of these systems  should follow the pattern of use of factory automation over the last several decades, according to McKinsey, reaching 50% to 90% in advanced economies. The bottom line: the Holy Grail of manufacturing has a way to go—but it’s on the horizon.

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