Smart Factory: Will operators become obsolete?

- Mar 07, 2019-

With increasing automation, factory operators continue to see their roles in the production process evolve, and adapt.

Over the past several decades, continuous advancements in human knowledge, multidisciplinary engineering, and applied technology have radically transformed the way people work, interact and think. Machines have become an integral part of our lives: a fact that’s crystal-clear in our everyday industrial and manufacturing processes.

Ever evolving computing power, access to big data, complex cyber-physical systems and rich sensory integration with a constantly active link to a human operator have brought about a global phenomenon that is now referred to as Industry 4.0: “smart” Factories of the Future – with the future already here.

This growing trend is the next step in improving an enterprise’s competitiveness and quality of performance. But how does the Smart Factory work exactly? Let’s explore it through the “eyes” of an operator working in these impressive production systems.

The “Smart” factory’s flow from raw materials to finished products

Real-time access to information, and the ability to automate, oversee and control most industrial processes with remote Internet-of-Things tools, form the backbone of every “smart” factory. Depending on each industrial sector’s standards, and the specific output requirements of each producer, different parts of the process can be automated, controlled, and monitored to various extents using the Internet-of-Things.

This offers a higher degree of versatility, and brings tangible value to producers seeking to optimize their efficiency, costs, and output, while also allowing them to focus on improving specific aspects of their production process. For instance, all producers and plant managers strive to secure dependable, high-quality suppliers who provide production plants with the basic building block behind each premium product: the raw material used to create it.

Since the production process represents the transformation of raw materials into finished products, “smart” factories employ new and improved ways of utilizing these materials with minimal waste, and maximum resource efficiency, which is paramount in creating a sustainable and scalable business operation.

By using high-quality materials which simultaneously meet both the standards demanded by the end customers (in the form of final products) and those demanded by the line performance in your industrial environment, “smart” factories improve productivity and quality on both ends of the process.

Moreover, having the ability to constantly monitor and manage service level agreements and commercial contracts with vendors reliably, which supply the necessary materials, has been proven to pay big dividends in the long run, especially if the optimized specifications were formulated early on.

Simply put, the clearer the indication your suppliers have regarding your required standards when it comes to the materials you need, the better their potential ability to serve your needs: this means constantly active quality control that ensures only those materials which fulfill all of your strict criteria are shipped to you, and all of this can be communicated in practically real-time.

Another crucial aspect is how efficiently these materials go to the shop floor. Just-in-time (JIT) delivery helps avoid overstocking and ensures the exact material volume needed for daily production, and smart buffering goes a long way in accommodating for supply chain variability of various types of raw materials.

These materials can be marked with smart tags in the form of 3D barcodes or RFID chips, which allows them to be promptly scanned and received into the warehouse, and immediately registered in the quality system cloud server. The relevant data in this cloud can then be easily shared with suppliers by giving them access to data collection tools (a Manufacturing Execution System, or other Industry 4.0 platforms), and this allows them to get real-time insight into the performance of their materials on the production line. This type of information exchange can enable suppliers to automatically troubleshoot emerging issues and deliver better quality.

The next step is to have the material automatically queued and prepared in advance of a production order, and based on actual consumption of existing materials (using automated collaborative robots), kitted and batched as required and then delivered to the line, where automated mobile robotic systems take over. The 3D barcode/RFID tags are accurately identified as the material is automatically loaded on the line, thereby creating a fully automated digital transaction chain.

Deficient materials are automatically rejected and the system is able to generate feedback for the producer in real time, while this information can also be forwarded to the supplier who then investigates the root cause of the defect in his own process. It does occasionally happen that a material is found to be deficient only after the production process has already begun, but quality control mechanisms such as vision systems and closed-loop control allow for instantaneous diagnostics and auto-correction, or they promptly alarm human operators if the problem cannot be auto-corrected and requires advanced intervention.

As the production process ends and final products are created, only those products which meet all the predefined quality factors will leave the line by being auto released (with the exception of micro susceptible products). Finally, a 3D barcode/RFID tag is applied to each case and the newly produced output is automatically registered in the system, resulting in full production confirmation. For full traceability, each newly created product’s 3D barcode/RFID tag is linked to that of the corresponding material used to create that product.

The impact on Factory of the Future operators

With increasing automation, factory operators continue to see their roles in the production process evolve, and adapt. Instead of bearing the brunt of the heavy labor efforts as they did in the past, factory operators are rapidly assuming the roles of controllers and emergency intervention handlers. They still might support material loading in instances where it cannot be fully automated, and they are expected to react to quality factor alarms when the system is unable to auto-correct.

Ultimately, operators face three different types of work:

  1. Regular or consistent planned work (e.g. manual loading of material across multiple lines, whenever necessary)

  2. Timed planned work (Lubricate at a predefined time window, for instance)

  3. Unplanned work (ad hoc reaction to quality control alarms or line stoppages when the system indicates necessary operator presence, etc.).

The amount of control which can be remotely exerted by on-shift technicians practically gives them the ability to act as plant managers when they are off-shift: they can execute and improve business continuity plans, interact with suppliers and address logistics upsets. Since the technicians and collaborative robotics teams are not physically bound to a single production line, this allows them to work across multiple lines throughout the plant. Overall effort required for both planned and unplanned work is reduced, efficacy is increased and this frees up extra human and financial resources.

Additionally, the vast majority of maintenance tasks are becoming automated (e.g. Lubricating efforts, Closed Loop Controls) and the focus appears to be shifting from reactive to proactive maintenance, thus augmenting preventive maintenance inspection with predictive and prognostic maintenance. Quality factors now also include additional requirements and higher standards for materials suppliers in order to further reduce cleaning efforts and minimize contamination on the production site.

Cloud integration and internet-of-things applications allow the operators to enjoy easy “one touch” access to all relevant processes via control tablets (authenticated via retinal scan). The tablet’s control panel provides operators with detailed insight into safety and quality indicators and gives them logs of any safety incidents or triggers in their area. Big data analysis, synthesis and advanced reporting allow for a wide range of metrics to be quickly assessed (e.g. consumer reactions, quality reports, SKU prioritization).

The functionality of the tablet application also allows the operator to browse each individual area of interest in greater detail (in order to see stops, process outages, tasks due, scrap, etc.), and to examine processes and tasks in-depth across all systems in order to verify their integrity and efficiency.

The production plan overview can also show the list of planned changeovers and related indicators (including time performance against stability metrics) and allow for employment of additional support for the changeover by using the resource scheduler. For maintenance purposes, parts are delivered from the dock to the line 24 hours in advance, with 3D barcodes and scanning used to ensure proper data transaction throughout the systems. All of these steps save time, improve safety, and create a much more productive environment for the operator to work in.

Learn more and in greater detail

As technology evolves every day, the value of industry 4.0 and “smart” factories increases, and the array of available tools and valuable solutions grows. A great way to prepare your manufacturing operations for this new standard and reap its full benefits is to explore each layer of your production process and create a roadmap for building your own Smart factory.

SmarterChains’ platform contains everything that you’ll need to start transforming your factory right now, all the way from a specific production line to your whole manufacturing network. Our Intelligence-as-a-Service model provides:

  • Rich industry 4.0 diagnostics, delivering on-demand access to remote, granular plant-data and technology recommendations.

  • Accelerates time-to-value, by designing optimized technology roadmaps, based on brand-agnostic, best-fit criteria.

  • Enables strategic collaborations, by matching the ideal solution providers’ offer to the most appropriate factory technology gap or need.

  • Provides meaningful benchmarking, across industries and locations, within companies and against competitors.