The manufacturing industry today is witnessing a new wave of technological change. Technologies that can directly control the physical world, including machines, factories and infrastructure, are now dominating the modern industrial landscape. This is in sharp contrast to a traditional manufacturing factory, which is a relatively closed set-up designed for com­­munication within the plant network and not necessarily with the outside world through the internet.

With the changing technological landscape, businesses have started shifting from products to outcome-based services and delivering measurable results to customers such as guaranteed machine uptime on factory floors. However, increased connecti­vity and data sharing have increased system vulnerabilities to attacks, espionage and data breaches, giving rise to security and data privacy challenges.

Cloud computing and analytics

Cloud computing is playing an essential and foundational role in enabling the next production revolution. It is helping manufacturers innovate, reduce costs and inc­rease their competitiveness.

Cloud-based solutions offer manufacturers a wide range of benefits such as scalability; operational efficiency; application and partner integration; data storage, management, and analytics; and enhanced security. It also facilitates research, design and development of new products, which help reduce product development costs and the time to market.

Cloud-based systems can be scaled up or down to manage shifting project workloads, an attribute useful in the manufacturing domain. Moreover, cloud computing gives manufacturers the ability to leverage infinitely scalable computational resources on an on-demand, pay-as-you-go basis, so that manufacturers can readily access the computational resources they require without having to purchase expensive IT equipment upfront. This is especially useful for small to medium-sized manufacturing enterprises that lack the financial resources to purchase expensive IT equipment. This applies not only to hardware components, but to software solutions as well. With cloud, manufacturers can use software such as enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management and product design on-demand and as needed, greatly improving enterprise agility. Cloud also gives small and medium enterprises affordable access to global best-of-breed software.

In addition, cloud computing provi­ders employ best-in-class cybersecurity practices that are often far more sophisticated than what individual companies can deploy, making IT systems in manufacturing more secure. Another area where cloud computing helps manufacturing is the integration of the data generated from IoT-enabled production equipment on the factory floor. Data streams from different partners, platforms and devices are difficult to integrate at in-house data centres as opposed to well-networked data centres ope­rating on cloud. This data can be ana­lysed through analytics software in order to obtain actionable insights into the factors directly supporting a company’s key business decisions such as the prevailing competitive landscape, possible sales incentives for specific products and new levers that can drive sales revenues.

Industrial IoT

The manufacturing industry has its own version of internet of things (IoT) known as industrial internet of things (IIoT), which incorporates machine-to-machine communication and automation technologies. IIoT is widely considered to be one of the primary trends dominating manufacturing operations today. Industries are adopting IIoT for predictive and proactive maintenance, real-time monitoring of operations, resource optimisation and remote diagnosis.

Through IIoT, manufacturing enterprises are moving towards an environment of connected sensors, which gather data about the current work and equipment status. Data collected from the factory equipment can help determine the health of the machinery and identify potential issues. This form of predictive maintenance can help curb productivity losses and potentia­lly extend the life of the factory machinery.

Leading global manufacturers including wind turbine manufacturers Siemens and General Electric, and automobile ma­n­u­facturers like Harley Davidson are some of the early adopters of IIoT. For instance, at Siemens’ electronics manufacturing plant in Amberg, Germany, ma­chi­nes and computers handle 75 per cent of the value chain autonomously, with arou­nd 1,000 automation controllers in operation from one end of the production line to the other.  Meanwhile, GE has de­ve­loped the world’s first digital wind farm, a dynamic, connected and adaptable wind energy ecosystem that integrates turbines with digital infrastructure.

Despite the benefits offered by IIoT in streamlining the production processes, several manufacturing companies have been reluctant to adopt it owing to concerns regarding interoperability between devices and machines that use different protocols and have different architectures. Another major concern is the security of IoT systems. Companies need to ascertain whether the benefits offered by IIoT are greater than the risks associated with it, which include unrestricted access to company information and increased vulnerability of internal systems to hacking, viruses and destructive malware.

Social media

Manufacturers can leverage social media platforms to determine the specific preferences and requirements of their customers. By automatically scanning, acquiring and analysing a wide range of data fro­m multiple sources like websites and mo­bile applications, manufacturers can gain valuable insights into the purchasing tren­ds and demographic records of the customers. Social media can also be extremely valuable when introducing a product in a new market by helping manufacturers understand customers’ requirements and expectations, cultural factors and the competitive climate of the place. In addition, it gives an opportunity to manufacturers to connect with each other across the globe. Platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn help share ideas, which can further turn into innovations that can be used for real-world applications. Manufacturers can also look at creating YouTube channels to share product training videos and behind-the-scenes glimpses at operations.

3D printing

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the process through which several layers of material are printed using a range of elements such as plastic polymers and metals. The technology contrasts with traditional subtractive manufacturing processes, which involve the removal of materials to create products. For example, in the subtractive process for making an aluminium part, an entire aluminium block is placed into a computer-aided design system and the excess material is cut away to make the part. Using this process, 60-70 per cent of the aluminium block ends up as scrap depending on the complexity and shape needed. The scrap is later melted down and reused for future manufacturing needs. In contrast, 3D-printing technology is additive, and thus manufacturers are able to use minimum material to fabricate a part.

Another key advantage of 3D printing technology over traditional manufacturing tools is of modifying a product. It is much simpler and cost-effective to alter in a 3D printer’s software, than resetting tools in a factory. The technology is, therefore, ideal for low-volume production such as craft items and prosthetics. Moreover, as it de­posits material only where it is needed, 3D printing is suitable for making lightweight and complex shapes for high-value products such as aircraft and cars.

Once a niche technology used in only a handful of industries, 3D printing is now being used by most manufacturing companies to produce product prototypes, redu­ce design-to-manufacturing cycle times, and alter the economics of production. The technology is being increasingly used for customer products. For instance, US-based company Nike is using 3D printing to manufacture iPhone cases.

Augmented reality

Augmented reality helps generate an indirect view of the real-world environment by augmenting its elements with computer-generated or extracted real-world sensory inputs such as sound, video and graphics. In manufacturing, augmented reality can help the factory personnel perform intricate assembly, maintenance and repair jobs by producing virtual work instructions that can guide assembly line workers and quality assurance technicians in performing complex tasks. For example, augmented rea­l­ity 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. Some manufacturers running au­g­­mented reality programmes have reported efficiency gains of over 30 per cent.

Several large manufacturing companies have also started using augmented reality in their facilities and on the field. For instan­ce, aerospace company Lockheed Martin uses Microsoft’s HoloLens, a pair of mixed reality smart glasses, which helps the company provide all the information needed by a technician in building a satellite or a spa­ce­craft on a virtual interface. Auto­ma­kers like Volkswagen and BMW have also started experimenting with augmented reality, which has proved useful in their manufacturing units, keeping workers hands-free and making communication between teams easier. Meanwhile, aircraft maker Boeing is using the technology to help technicians navigate through the wires needed to connect a plane’s electrical systems.

Puneet Kumar Arora