When everyone is hunkered down simply trying to survive, who's going to invest in rolling out new technology? One of the themes of the ongoing MindFuel virtual event — see our full coverage here — has been the rapid adaptation companies have been making in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. But is this the really the time to be discussing smart manufacturing and the factories of the future? Digital Bulletin's Romily Broad, tasked with hosting just such a discussion, acknowledged the potential pushback:
There may be a sense in a lot of manufacturers around the world that now is not the time to be spending any money on anything, thank you very much. We've got other things to worry about.
All credit then to the participants in this vendor panel on smart manufacturing for steering away from buzzword-laden platitudes and exploring some of the realities of where manufacturers are at in these torrid times. Microsoft's David Breaugh, Americas Business Leader for Manufacturing Industries, summed up the dichotomy in how manufacturers have been affected, depending on their location and sector:
Either your forecast has literally been eviscerated to zero as a matter of trying to make disposition of orders through inventory or available capacity. In other cases, the companies that are making household items, food, and especially some of these critical medical supplies, it's all about throughput. They've literally seen a scale or a magnitude increase on anything that they could have foreseen four months ago.
There's no doubt that the pandemic has produced some dramatic stories of manufacturing agility — car makers switching over to ramp up ventilator production in a matter of weeks, or distillers switching from spirits to hand gel in days. Adversity has proven to be the mother of invention. But will this ingenuity carry over into the coming months? Dr Raffaello Lepratti, VP Business Development and Marketing at Siemens Digital Industries Software certainly hopes so — but we don't know for sure, he admits.
All in all, I think the perception is, when we will come back to the new normal, that there will be, I think, a consensus and much less obstacles to convince people to look at digitalization and being decision makers.
That's what I see, what I feel. I cannot prove it, there is no validation. But we need to be prepared to support it, because it's not just about business, it's about really bringing the economy to the next level and bringing it back to the level we expect to happen.
The panel at least discerned some reasons for optimism that manufacturers will benefit from adoption of new technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), augmented reality (AR), robotics and 3D printing. At they same time, they admitted that not all of these technologies are yet ready for prime time. They advanced some practical examples of where smart manufacturing is likely to prove of most immediate use, along with some advice on how to proceed with projects. Here's a sampling of their thoughts on which technologies are worth taking a look at and why — the session is also worth tuning into for useful takeaways on measuring success when adopting new technologies.
AR finds a role in remote support
Perhaps unexpectedly, augmented reality (AR) has been one of the first of these emerging technologies to find a role during the pandemic lockdown. As companies suddenly found their maintenance teams were confined to home with limited or no access to fix machinery on site, the use of AR and mixed reality (MR) has come to the fore in providing remote support to on-site staff. Industrial climate control manufacturer Munters switched on this capability in a matter of days in March, and interest in the tech from other IFS customers has also spiked, says Bas de Vos, Vice President of IFS Labs:
Maybe adversity like this actually pushes these type of technologies forward. We see that very clearly with augmented reality, the remote assistance type of approaches. A year ago, that was 'interesting', we all saw the value and possibility of it. Now suddenly, we see everybody wants that. Why? Because we have a problem and we need to solve this problem.
Immediate returns from IoT on the shop floor
For those manufacturers who are really challenged by the current conditions, technology that can pay for itself by providing an immediate return has to be the priority, says Breaugh. He recommends focusing on collecting data that can help identify where current processes are incurring unnecessary costs:
I like to focus on quality, that tends to be hidden waste, in terms of trying to really do inline inspection. That usually comes with a pretty significant savings of both labour and energy costs. So quality is a good place to hunt.
Then the other concept of really being able to look at routings through a plant. Both direct production workers and indirect, there's a lot of hidden waste ... Being able to bring that type of visibility and traceability both at a worker, at a product and at a machine level can really reveal a lot of hidden costs.
For manufacturers looking to scale their business, inventory management is an area to focus on, he adds:
With all those shocks that are happening both on the demand and supply side, inventory is the usual suspect for any supply chain program. But a lot of the tools and processes being used to look at inventory don't even differentiate between cycle stock and safety stock. So I think there's an opportunity to relook at all that.
Is this the time for 3D printing?
One potential source of greater supply chain resilience is 3D printing, which has been talked about for many years now but has not made as much progress as many had expected. So long as cheaper alternatives remain available from other sources, it's likely to remain a niche activity, but that could change if traditional supply chains remain chaotic, says de Vos:
We never had a need because a lot of the parts we could just buy very cheap in some countries that have lower labour costs. But suddenly we can't access them anymore. Is this going to drive developments like this going forward? I'm not so sure today. It depends a little bit on how long this pandemic is going to last. But if we're going to get a wave two and a wave three and a wave four, and this is going to just repeat, I think developments like that will become quicker. People will see a problem and solve it.
Breaugh remains optimistic for the future of the technology as manufacturers put their supply chains under more scrutiny:
With something like 3D printing, you can almost reinvent the supply chain from scratch. We're seeing a lot of focus there, specifically with spare parts. I think over time, you're going to see design collaboration with upstream suppliers, and really going from components to sub-assemblies. With some of the capabilities around regenerative design, entirely kind of crazy new concepts in terms of what parts look like.
The type of numbers that I've seen, they're cheaper, they're a lot faster to produce, they're stronger and perform a lot better in some of these harsh environments.
Robotics needs to get cheaper
One significant obstacle to the proliferation of smart manufacturing technologies is the affordability of suitable machinery. Now that manufacturers face even greater cost and finance constraints than usual, Lepratti wonders whether this will delay the advent of Industry 4.0.
In every revolution, there is also a big obstacle and this is when this hardware will be affordable in terms of financial costs? This is not just relevant to 3D printing, this is relevant to everything that Industry 4.0 is bringing, cyber physical systems.
We are making tremendous progress. But when will we have really affordable new robots, that will be key for the next gen of manufacturing, at the same cost of industrial robots we have today? I don't know. I'm just saying this is a big challenge we need to speed up.
Simulate the return to work
Another practical application for digital tools in manufacturing today is to help manage the return to work, says Lepratti. Manufacturers not only need to implement new routines for cleaning and social distancing, they also need to plan production based on new shift patterns:
How can I restructure and simulate my manufacturing based on these new regulations? ... Many companies are not considering the planning and scheduling of production orders, based upon your resources and material.
Thankfully this was a discussion, like much of the MindFuel content, that remained grounded in reality. Manufacturers are still investing in technology, but they need those investments to deliver rapid impact that's relevant to their challenges today. It looks like IoT, AR and simply getting more sophisticated about collecting and analyzing data are the best ways to use technology to achieve that today. Whereas more progress is needed before 3D printing and the broader panoply of Industry 4.0 can find widespread roles.