With the advent of Industry 4.0, manufacturing enterprises are making the leap from traditional automation to smart factories. This involves the use of disruptive technologies such as big data analytics, internet of things (IoT), cloud computing, automation, 3D printing and augmented reality (AR). Smart factories leverage various new age mobility solutions to digitalise operations across the manufacturing value chain, enabling manufacturers to enhance business performance and efficiency. These solutions not only help in reducing inventory and production costs, but also make the supervision of day-to-day operations smoother. Further, the technological transformation driven by Industry 4.0 has allowed companies to gather and analyse data across machines, enabling faster, more flexible and more efficient processes that help in producing high quality goods at lower costs.

A look at the key technology trends that are changing the dynamics of the manufacturing industry…

Use of IIoT

Industrial internet of things (IIoT) has emerged as one of the key trends in the manufacturing space. This includes machine-to-machine communication and automation technologies. Enterprises are adopting IIoT for predictive and proactive maintenance, real-time monitoring of operations, resource optimisation and remote diagnosis. Further, IIoT provides an environment of connected sensors, which gather data about the current work and equipment status. The data collected from the factory equipment can help determine the health of the machinery and identify potential issues. This can help curb productivity losses and potentially extend the life of factory machinery.

For instance, a large manufacturer in Maharashtra is using IIoT to streamline its supply chain. The manufacturer has made its shop floor IoT enabled with devices tracking the position of each employee and machines sharing data on temperature, speed of various components, production efficiency, movement of carousel, etc. Another manufacturer is using IIoT to manage equipment health by analysing data on its current state and variables influencing its performance.

Leveraging AI

Manufacturers are leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance overall efficiency, reduce manufacturing costs and improve productivity and quality of goods. Replacing, removing or renovating a plant is a capital-intensive process, and tools like AI and machine learning (ML) provide an alternative cost-effective route for modernising operations without replacing machinery. Manufacturers are using AI and ML tools to pre-inspect raw materials, identify defects and perform quality evaluations. Many AI solutions currently being deployed have visual inspection capabilities, which can be used for correct labelling, batch numbering, identifying size/ dimension mismatches, etc.

Besides, AI ensures predictive maintenance of machines and optimises asset utilisation in a specific manufacturing unit. Further, it helps manufacturers make quick and error-free decisions by predicting faults and allows them to take appropriate action to prevent disruption in production. AI can also be used in inventory management. AI solutions can predict inventory requirements at a particular time by studying market data and obtaining accurate estimates for future demand of the company’s products.

Automating operations

Manufacturing enterprises have also started automating core processes to enhance efficiency, improve quality and remain competitive in the market. Autonomous robots are being used by manufacturers in the transportation of raw materials, goods under production and finished goods within a factory. Many enterprises have started leveraging this technology to systematise movement within the factory, and enhance efficiency and productivity.

For example, Thermax Limited, which manufactures products for heating, cooling, water and waste management along with speciality chemicals, is adopting automation at its plant in Dahej, Gujarat. The company has removed workers from its chemical mixing process and created an algorithm for each chemical recipe. An operator feeds the recipe into a system and then releases chemicals automatically from vats located on the top floor of a five-storey structure. The steamer and chiller on the lower floors are then set at the optimum temperature and pressure. Through automation, the company has cut its production cycle to 15 days from 40 days earlier.

3D printing and AR

3D printing is set to emerge as a potential game changer in the manufacturing space. It has the capability to completely alter operations across the manufacturing value chain. This technology can allow manufacturers to shift from mass production to full customisation and from centralised production to distributed production. According to an industry report, the 3D printing market in India is projected to reach a valuation of $79 million by 2021.

Some manufacturing enterprises have already started using 3D printing to create product prototypes, reduce design-to-manufacturing cycle times and alter the economics of production. They are using 3D printing to streamline their mass customisation and build-to-order product strategies, and offer customised products and services. 3D printing is also being used to enhance production flexibility, thereby increasing sales and driving revenue growth. As 3D printing technology is additive, manufacturers are able to create a product with minimum material use.

A key advantage of 3D printing over traditional manufacturing tools is that it enables product modification. It is much easier and more cost effective to alter the product design in 3D printer software than resetting tools in a factory. The technology is ideal for low-volume goods such as craft items and prosthetics. Moreover, 3D printing is suitable for making lightweight and complex shapes for high-value products such as aircraft and cars. This technology is increasingly being used for customer products.

Meanwhile, AR is gaining traction among manufacturing enterprises. It can produce virtual work instructions that can guide assembly line workers and quality assurance technicians in performing complex assembly, maintenance and repair jobs. For instance, AR can be used to highlight the sequence of operations and special tools needed for the task, as well as display warnings about potentially hazardous activities and materials.

Several large manufacturing companies have started using AR in their facilities and on the field. Some manufacturers running AR programmes have reported efficiency gains of over 30 per cent.

Moving towards smart factories

Another key trend in the manufacturing space is smart factories. A smart factory connects machines, tools and workers, which can interact with each other. Some of the key features of smart factories are sensors on machines to accurately monitor output; use of predictive models to reduce unplanned downtime of machines and equipment and energy conservation models that are able to identify wastage and take corrective action; quality monitoring through machine vision that tracks errors; and tighter control of processes resulting in superior products.

While the adoption of smart factories in India is currently at a nascent stage, it is expected to gather steam in the coming years. According to industry experts, smart factories will produce 30-40 per cent more output and reduce costs by 20-30 per cent through downsizing. The output quality levels will also improve by 10-15 per cent, resulting in less waste and improved customer satisfaction.

Challenges and the way ahead

Although the manufacturing industry is rapidly deploying technology solutions to modernise operations, certain impediments continue to hamper adoption. Most manufacturers face challenges in digitalising operations due to heavy reliance on paper-based processes. Another major issue is the unavailability of a skilled workforce to create and implement new technology solutions. Technological innovations in manufacturing processes are needed to leverage the opportunities offered by Industry 4.0. It is also imperative for companies to upskill and reskill their workforce to keep up with the emerging technology solutions. Further, cybersecurity is a key issue and organisations need to strongly secure their data and systems to protect against data breaches.

There is a need to address these challenges in order to facilitate the transition to connected factories. Smart factories will deploy cutting-edge technology tools to build integrated global manufacturing supply chains. They will be the key drivers of the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0, making knowledge-based manufacturing a reality.

By Kuhu Singh Abbhi