Plugging into the factory of the future

Remote Services

“Factory of the Future” - or #FOF for those who like to get their technology news from the internet of things - could not be a hotter buzzword.

But for many it remains a fuzzy or even intimidating concept. It is also a moving target as we are pushing beyond the novelty of simply connecting devices to unlocking even more value out of (insert your own favorite buzzword here): Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, smart manufacturing, IT/OT convergence etc. – in a word, digitalization.

There are many ways to approach this complex topic, but ABB sees the factory of the future as part of an interconnected ecosystem called the Internet of Things, Services and People. In an industrial sense the ‘things’ represents robots, machines, motors and sensors – over 6 billion connected things in 2016 and a staggering 5.5 million new things every day, sending quantities and details of data that were unimaginable even a few years ago.

‘Services’ represents what we do with all this data – not only doing very complex analysis to recognize patterns that have previously been buried far below the surface, but also presenting this rich information in actionable and intuitive ways. In short – making big data small.

Consider one robot in a fleet of hundreds whose performance has drifted from ideal but is still within operating range. To the naked eye the robot is running fine and might not be scheduled for maintenance for another 500 operating hours. But a comparison with best practice conditions with the rest of the fleet might let a factory manager know that the robot should be serviced soon or productivity and the robot’s lifetime could suffer.

‘People’ complete the picture by using this intelligence to make better decisions and control the systems. There has been volumes of pro and con opinions written on the impact of automation on people and jobs, and an exponential number of impassioned responses from doomsayers to technology evangelists alike – some anonymous, others which probably should have been anonymous.

But the reality is that while many things and systems can be automated, no system will be able to replicate the complexities and subtleties of the human brain. In the future people will add value by doing even more of what they do best – improvising, problem solving and adapting to change. These uniquely human skills play perfectly to the demands of the factory of the future.

There will always be a call for manual assembly in some sectors, and there will always be applications suited towards mass production. But there is an increasingly expanding factory of the future space between these extremes for more flexible and productive automation solutions.

The ‘new normal’ in many sectors has gone from mass production (making many of the same thing for a long time) to mass customization (making smaller batches of more diverse things for shorter amounts of time). This creates more sporadic and less predictable tasks, which are difficult to fully automate.

One growing answer to this challenge is collaborative automation – allowing people to safely work side by side with robots, and in some cases even share common tasks. Robots add precision and tireless repetition, while people contribute their experience, their ability to adapt in three dimensions – and their passion.

There is also an interesting twist taking place as we move towards the factory of the future. For the past few decades many of the new products, materials and processes that found their way into the consumer world came from high-tech industrial sectors such as aerospace. Today many of the innovations finding their way into the industrial sector come from the consumer world – gamification has gone from a way of annoying your Facebook friends to a serious programming tool for industrial robots, and smart phone apps now monitor the health of industrial motors as well the temperature of your living room.

If you can imagine this same level of digitalization and collaboration applied on the industrial scale, and the flexibility it provides, you already have a pretty good view of the factory of the future.

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About the author

Philip Lewin

I'm one of the many people sharing ABB's passion and great stories for robotics and industrial ingenu-ity. It’s exciting for me to be at the leading edge of a new age for one of the most fundamental things that people do - we make things. At the same time, the awareness has never been greater that economic progress, higher living standards and new ways of making things cannot come at the expense of our environment. I’m proud to contribute to this exciting and important discussion.
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