How Is Smart Manufacturing Creating Factories of the Future?

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Manufacturing is a broad industrial category, which means it represents many compelling use cases for smart technology — including the IoT, machine learning and automation. The ultimate goal of bringing next-generation tech to manufacturing is to create a “smart factory.” We’ll see in a moment that the concept looks a little different in each sub-category of manufacturing.

Even if truly smart — or truly autonomous — factories are a work in progress, even the interim steps look compelling.

How Does Smart Technology Apply to Injection Molding and Machining?

One of the major hallmarks of smart technology for manufacturing involves the tighter integration of hardware and software. But what does this mean?

The reduction in the cost of two major technology types — sensor technology and connectivity technology — is responsible for several of the smart manufacturing opportunities you’ll read about below. Sensor technology helps us gather information about the world, our facilities and the work we’re doing. Meanwhile, connectivity technology gives us the means to put that information to work and deploy it to every part of the operation.

Here are three ways smart tech can benefit manufacturing.

  1. Predictive Maintenance for Production Equipment

Some production equipment, including molding machines, must operate around the clock — or close to it. Smart factories use networked assembly and machining equipment that can study its own performance in real-time against known benchmarks and flag any maintenance items.

The goal is to make maintenance preventive rather than reactive to avoid machine failure and production stoppages. In machining and molding operations, likely applications for predictive maintenance involve machines that adjust their own operating parameters when high temperatures or unusual vibrations are detected. Implementing such a system can help reduce reject parts.

  1. More Advanced Asset and Workpiece Tracking

Modern factories have lots of mobile assets, some of which may be used between teams, such as pallet jacks, handheld tools and scanners, reusable stowing or shipping cartons and much more. It used to be a hassle to physically keep track of essential tools throughout a facility or campus.

But the advent of, and cost-saving advancements in, near-field communication, Bluetooth, RFID and even Wi-Fi mean it’s possible to track assets in real-time, throughout our facilities, using embedded tags and chips. The same techniques also make it possible to gather detailed information about the location, quantity and condition of workpieces as they move throughout multiple assemblies or finishing stages.

  1. Traceability for Compliance, Safety and Transparency

Multiple industries today — from agriculture and pharmaceuticals to medical devices and automotive parts — find themselves responding to stricter sourcing, quality and traceability regulations. When the electronics industry, for example, deals with counterfeit or compromised parts, anything from consumer electronics to national defense may be affected.

Parts that are machined or molded for high-performance environments and industries, such as automotive, aerospace, aviation, health care, electronics and heavy equipment, are rightly held to high standards. And yet, many examples exist in these and other industries of regulators levying very high fines because of slow responses to consumer safety issues, such as windshield recalls and pathogens found in various kinds of grocery items.

It may never be possible to eliminate the threats that make product recalls necessary. But factories of the future will be better equipped to mount a swifter response and limit their liability. Because each manufacturing, handling and distribution system is networked within smart factories, each batch of products and each shipment can be traced, down to the individual product, back to the assembly equipment in specific factories.

In addition to providing a clear and traceable chain of custody, the same RFID or NFC tags can also embed stowing, shipping and other handling instructions right into the product. This will help cut down on mis-stows, returned shipment and misplaced merchandise.

Does Smart Manufacturing Achieve Results?

In a word: “Yes.”

Although individual mileage may vary, and although a concept like “digital manufacturing” is a bit subjective, some reporting suggests that manufacturers who deploy digital technologies wisely can reduce the time it takes for products to reach the market by as much as 30 percent.

It’s not just about making more products faster, either. Gone are the days when factories churn out many more times the number of products they need. Instead, smart factories can operate far more leanly.

The injection molding process is fairly good already at reducing waste, but smarter factories will take this to new heights by connecting a company’s sales and distribution channels to its sourcing and manufacturing channels, making the organization as a whole more responsive to changes in demand and other disruptions to the supply chain.

Moreover, “digital twin” inventory systems — made possible thanks to advancements in traditional and additive manufacturing — means additional runs of parts can be churned out easily, even when no physical inventory remains. The rapid prototyping unlocked by 3D printing also means companies can generate replacement parts for in-house machinery much more cost-effectively.

Making your manufacturing plant smarter is less a question of achieving results and more a matter of which pain points you’re looking to address. No matter which route you take, you hopefully have a better understanding of what the “factory of the future” might look like in your corner of the industry.

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