In a global economy, the future for manufacturers will be presiding over a network of factories producing different parts, subassemblies and final assemblies throughout the world—with the ability to trigger next step processes in plants that are half a world away, and run by robots and other automated instrumentation.

This and other elements of the smart manufacturing vision prompted Germany several years ago to initiate its Industry 4.0 government initiative, designed to serve as a blueprint and a vision for its industrial sector. Pundits call Industry 4.0 a “fourth industrial revolution”--following the steam engine, the conveyer belt and the first phase of IT automation.

In this new manufacturing world, factories and suppliers will be linked to each other through sensors and automated processes that operate in real time from anywhere, and that communicate with each other over the Internet. Commercial manufacturing systems will also be outfitted with software interfaces that are able to interact with an emerging “Internet of Things” (IoT) that takes in and sends messages from machines as well as from humans, and that is capable of driving machinery and robots on manufacturing floors.

Just last year, Keith McPherson, director of market development at Rockwell Automation, predicted that in the near future, the volume of data from a manufacturing plant floor will eclipse the amount of business data that companies generate —and Microsoft industry solutions manager Enrique Andaluz added that statistics were showing that out of the big volume of data that’s currently capable of being gathered, only about seven percent of it was used. McPherson backed this up by citing programmable logic controllers (PLCs) on the factory floor as prime examples, stating that even today, much of the data being analyzed by PLCs is already out of date by the time it reaches the next upstream process in a manufacturing workflow.

The migration to highly automated, smart manufacturing environments is unsurprisingly transforming factory work processes and also the technologies and the employees that support them.
“We now have endpoint control detection, control and management technology that can interface with both digital and analog equipment,” said Frank Winter, CEO of Auconet, a German firm that provides network endpoint management and control technology to companies in a variety of industry sectors, including monitoring and control for factory robotics and automation for utilities like water companies. The breakthrough into the analog world is fortuitous news for utility companies and even for factories that continue to run older pumps and equipment that is not digitized, but that must still be brought into machine “conversations” and data exchange.

In the center of this activity are employees and contractors who move from station to station on the manufacturing floor, using tablets to monitor and control the robotics and process automation that is in play. These operators are alerted to potential impasses in manufacturing process flows by sensor-generated alerts from robots and other devices. In an extreme case, an employee using a tablet is able to stop an entire production line if he has to.

In Denmark, Sæby Fiskeindustri automated its entire fish packing operation with 60-70 robots, eliminating human labor, and integrating the robotics operation with other processes that occur within its plant. “The requirement was that it should be a flexible system, and that it should be easy to service,” said. Ulrik Bendtsen, technical manager. “After many small adjustments, we were able to create the final design and design specifications. One of the most difficult things was to find space and include the new requirements that naturally occur during the development phase. But we succeeded and we have now succeeded in achieving a capacity boost of 60-70 percent for the same production time.”

In Australia,100-year-old Yarra Trams has placed data sensor points on 91,000 pieces of equipment to automate monitoring of its more than 250 kilometers of double tracks in Melbourne.

The ability of sensors and robotics to transform manufacturing has only begun to be tapped—and the time for manufacturers to plan for and incorporate new robotics and sensor-based technologies is at hand. Faster and smarter manufacturing routes goods to market faster, and opens up greater revenue opportunities around the world.