Building the factory of the future today with the right technology

Building the factory of the future today with the right technology
Manufacturing is transforming as companies empower themselves with cloud and digital technologies

Elly Yates-Roberts |

This article was originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of The Record. Subscribe for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox. 

A palpable sense of excitement can be felt across the manufacturing industry as the application of advanced technologies creates the factory of the future. “Manufacturing – and the technology that makes it more intelligent – is shaping our future in exciting ways,” says Colin Masson, global industry director, manufacturing solutions at Microsoft Cloud and Enterprise. “Manufacturers are embracing new technologies to address core challenges for business differentiation and profitability and to address sustainability, workforce and cybersecurity challenges with innovative and responsible manufacturing practices.”

The factory of the future combines technologies including analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), sensors, cloud, edge and augmented reality. “These technologies are coming together to drive creative disruption and expansion of traditional business models,” says Muthuraman ‘Ram’ Ramasamy, industry director, Automation and IIoT at business consultant Frost & Sullivan. “Huge volumes of data are being tracked through the factory like invisible threads which need to be captured and converted into actions, insights and outcomes. An agile factory of the future environment is becoming essential, because the explosion of data and reduced time to action is such that it’s literally impossible for human beings to make sense of it.”

The question facing manufacturers is not whether to embrace the factory of the future, but how – and leading technology companies are helping to answer it. For example, Microsoft and BMW Group’s Open Manufacturing Platform provides a technology framework and open community for sharing smart factory solutions across the automotive and manufacturing sectors. Its aim is to significantly accelerate future industrial internet of things (IIoT) developments. And Siemens’ MindSphere open IoT operating system connects products, plants, systems and machines with the Microsoft Azure cloud platform so manufacturers can securely and easily connect any IIoT device and leverage interoperable cloud services to create powerful, scalable IIoT systems.

One challenge is that, with significant technology investments already in place, not all manufacturers can simply leap to the cloud to achieve Industry 4.0. “Companies can’t simply rip and replace their technology,” says Ramasamy. “They look to get the maximum leverage from those investments. But 70% of their data is generated at the edge, through various machines, packaging equipment, assembly lines and testing, so an affordable technology set up is essential.”

Help is at hand from companies such as Intel, which is working with Microsoft on a PC reference design for factories and industrial applications. It will enable device partners to build fully provisioned and customised industrial PCs that can be connected to a range of devices to discover, manage and analyse data in real time, using AI on the machine or in the Azure cloud.

“A real breakthrough is the ability to deploy AI on the intelligent edge,” says Masson. “Microsoft Windows IoT, Azure IoT Hub and Azure Stack technologies can help manufacturers run AI models in near real-time and integrate them into manufacturing systems. For example, Azure Data Box Edge provides a powerful, AI-enabled edge appliance that sits in the manufacturer’s data centre or on the factory floor, alongside their existing hardware, eliminating network latency. In addition, the Bonsai technology Microsoft acquired last year helps users with limited AI knowledge to train manufacturing systems and robotics to perform tasks.”

Masson cites Spanish wind power company Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, which has transformed the process of maintaining the rotor blades on its 120-metre-high wind turbines with autonomous drones and a digital solution that analyses images for potential damage. By migrating the solution to Azure and infusing it with Azure AI to process image recognition, the company is further streamlining its blade inspections.

Underlying all these advances is a shift in perceptions of value from ownership to experience, which drives transformation and provides workforce empowerment. “The acquisitive economy of the past is being displaced” says Ramasamy. “People want to gain ‘experience value’ from the money they spend. In manufacturing, that translates to how the technology helps them do their job better, faster, smarter and simpler.”

In an industry where attracting talent can be a struggle, enabling that experience is critical for developing skills and productivity. “One study found that manufacturers address this challenge by applying AI, for an expected 76% increase in worker output,” says Masson. “A good example is Goodyear, which is using Microsoft 365 collaboration technologies to help drive productivity and generate new efficiencies to improve product delivery.”

Augmented and mixed reality technologies such as Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 and ­mixed-reality apps are proving invaluable in this area. PTC, for instance, is helping customers of engineering business Howden to use mixed reality to reduce unplanned equipment downtime and better align overall maintenance strategies. And civil engineering firm Bilfinger is using AI to tag videos captured by any device for its ‘Industrial Tube’ internal knowledge repository.

“Augmented, virtual and mixed reality technologies take computer-aided design and manufacture to a whole new level of interactivity,” says Ramasamy. “Designers can interact with a 3D model as if it’s physical; they can spin it around, have rich interactions with it and experience it in an immersive way. In production and field service, technologies like augmented reality can enable powerful on-the-job training.” 

Ultimately, the successful factory of the future is a collusion of technologies and people. “Technology has always been available, but success lies in how it is applied – which technologies are adopted, the benefits achieved and the transformation of culture,” says Ramasamy. “Manufacturing is on the cusp of transformation, but how that transformation is achieved is the most interesting part of the story – and it’s a part that many manufacturers are still discovering.” 

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