In recent years, the emergence of Industry 4.0 has been steadily transforming the manufacturing sector into an ultra-high-tech industry. Innovative smart technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), robotic process automation (RPA), the IoT, sensors, and machine vision are powerful tools that many companies are starting to integrate into both their manufacturing techniques and business practices.

Augmented reality can be used to connect human personnel with the digital spectrum, achieving the ultimate level of integration. (By Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com)

Whether you’re building a brand-new smart factory from the ground up or integrating these smart technologies into an existing facility, there are a few things to keep in mind during the design phase. Most importantly, you must understand how a smart manufacturing facility interacts with itself and all of its individual components.

Key Features of a Smart Factory

At its core, the smart factory utilizes a combination of technologies to mold the traditional automation process into a synergetic ecosystem that brings together all aspects of the business including operations, process, enterprise, supply chain, and beyond. Ultimately, this results in a dynamic, optimized, and flexible system.

None of this can be made possible without first understanding the key concepts that drive both the digital and physical mechanisms of the smart facility: connectivity and optimization.

Connectivity – From the smallest node to the most complex robotic system, a smart factory relies on connectivity. It’s the bedrock on which everything else is built; it facilitates the seamless transfer of data across all levels of the factory, enterprise, and supply chain.

Regardless of whether you’re building a new factory or upgrading an existing one, the design phase should be guided by the concepts of data collection and connectivity. With this in mind, manufacturers need to focus on how to utilize technologies such as sensors, cloud computing, and the IoT in their designs.

Sensors can be used in a wide variety of applications including monitoring machinery, detecting hazardous conditions within the facility, identifying inefficient energy usage, and tracking inventory. These sensors are designed to collect data 24/7 and deliver it to a visualization system that helps users in assessing the data and drawing subsequent conclusions on how and where to optimize their system.

With machines, for example, the sensors can detect whether or not a piece of equipment is damaged, requires cleaning, or is lagging in production efficiency. This information informs manufacturers regarding exactly what’s happening in their facility in real time, empowering them to make better informed decisions that optimize production and decrease downtime.

When connected to digital technologies like the IoT and cloud computing, sensors can collect data from all corners of the facility and bring it together to provide manufacturers with a 360° view of the factory, identifying all issues at once at any given moment. Because such interconnectivity can allow for monitoring from a smart device, manufacturers can even identify issues without being physically present in the facility.

Optimization – Optimization refers to the implementation of analytical digital tools in an effort to minimize the need for human intervention while simultaneously increasing productivity and efficiency. These tools compound the impact of the data collection and connectivity technologies.

By considering the potential incorporation of machine learning platforms, AI, Big Data, the digital supply network, procurement 4.0, and RPA, among others, manufacturers can automatically handle and maximize efficient production across a broad variety of processes without the need for human intervention.

When approaching the design phase of a smart factory, manufacturers must consider how these technologies can be leveraged for them specifically. Moreover, manufacturers need to think about how process, operations, enterprise, and supply chain can all be streamlined into a singular, networked system.

Interconnectivity enables monitoring from a smart device, enabling manufacturers to identify issues without being physically present in the facility. (By PopTika/Shutterstock.com)

Together, these technologies can seamlessly manage processes such as advanced planning and scheduling, inventory analysis, increased supply chain transparency and traceability, automated paperwork processing, predictive maintenance, and more. Not only is such optimization cost-effective, but it also dramatically decreases risks associated with human error while freeing up employees to tackle more sophisticated tasks.

Beyond the Digital Sphere

Many of these technologies and practices are performed within the digital world and as such, are essentially invisible to the human eye; however, to reach peak efficiency, these digital technologies perform best when coupled with physical technology. In a smart factory, this generally refers to the use of robotics, additive manufacturing, and more recently, augmented reality.

When designing a smart facility, manufacturers should consider how these physical technologies can work best for them. Most companies already utilize robotics on the shop floor, for example, but a smart factory would also use such machines in other capacities such as in warehouse operations. Most importantly, these robots would be interconnected with other aspects of the facility. With the facility’s sensors collecting data, the IoT and cloud computing making the data accessible throughout the plant, and the various digital technologies analyzing it and learning from it, these machines can perform routine processes with more accuracy and efficiency than they ever could through traditional methods.

Although robots are nothing new to industry, additive manufacturing and augmented reality are more recent additions to smart manufacturing. Additive manufacturing is primarily being utilized for rapid prototyping applications. While this is useful in and of itself, additive manufacturing processes get a real boost when coupled with technologies such as AI; for example, AI can be used to analyze a range of variables, such as material characteristics or cost restrictions, and use that analysis to generate a prototype design.

Meanwhile, augmented reality can be used to connect human personnel with the digital spectrum, basically achieving the ultimate level of integration. When human workers collaborate with digital technologies, they combine the best of both worlds by pairing high levels of automated precision with human nuance.

Next Steps

While designing a new smart facility or even incorporating smart elements into an existing plant can seem like a daunting process, the advantages outweigh the drawbacks by creating lean, efficient systems that enhance production, lower costs, and improve business practices.

Smart technologies do much more than just enhance automation processes — when designed properly, they fuse together operations and information technologies to create highly interconnected, agile systems. These systems are not only capable of improving all aspects of operation but can also be used to optimize all aspects of a business.

This article was written by Kristin Manganello of Thomas, New York, NY. For more information, visit here .