The challenge in this scenario was worker safety—the risk of injury because of the close proximity of employees to large robotic equipment. The company wanted to maintain the highest standards of worker safety without the need to build safety enclosures for the workers, which would decrease manufacturing speed and productivity. Rockwell’s solution was to embed extremely sensitive sensors in the robots. “If the robot touched a person, it stopped what it was doing immediately,” said Chand. “The risk of a person getting hurt is very, very minimal.”
He added, “The future of robotics is collaborative robots.” David Mindell, a professor at MIT and the co-founder and CEO of Humatics, agreed. “Robots present huge opportunities for reducing stress and strain, bringing average workers up to the skill level of the most skilled workers,” said Mindell, author of Our Robots, Ourselves. “The factory of the future is a place where people and robots have this very well understood relationship to each other.”
Other speakers affirmed this prospect, predicting substantial growth in the robotics market. “Twenty percent of our business is coming from robotics, with lots of different companies making collaborative systems,” said Herb Lade, vice president, global solutions and services, at Cognex, a manufacturer of machine vision software and sensors used in robotics applications. “The payback [for the investments in robots] is in the 12- to 14-month range, with an overall 20% reduction in production costs.”
Lade pointed to the use of smaller industrial robots deployed in the assembly of components inside a smartphone as evidence. In the past, highly customized automation equipment was required to undertake this task. Since the product essentially has a one-year life cycle, the manufacturer had to write off the capital equipment each year as new automation equipment was needed. “Robots not only allow for more functionality to be crammed into a smartphone, they do it at a more manageable cost basis,” Lade said.
“The payback [for the investments in robots] is in the 12- to 14-month range, with an overall 20% reduction in production costs.”
If smart manufacturing were an orchestra, the Internet of Things (IoT) would be the conductor. By digitally transforming the end-to-end product life cycle, data can be extracted in the cloud from the manufacturing value chain to make products much closer to market demand. “Cloud-based analytics give you all the feedback you need on how your [manufacturing] assets are really performing,” said Caglayan Arkan, general manager, worldwide manufacturing and resources industry, at Microsoft.
With the IoT, the goal is for billions of intelligent devices, machines and other sources of data to connect and provide instant business value. “When you go to a factory and you look at all the sensors and actuators and every piece of machinery on the floor, even something as simple as a little power supply in every panel, it’s all generating tremendous amounts of data,” said Raj Batra, president, digital factory, at Siemens USA, the U.S.-based division of the large German industrial manufacturing conglomerate.
The challenge for companies is processing this data, he added. “Half of the world’s data was generated last year,” said Batra. “Yet, only 0.5% of it has been used or analyzed. We’re in a data-driven environment and the only way to really capture this is with digitization. So if you’re not in the business of digitizing your manufacturing operations—and small and midsized enterprises have a long, long way to go—you’re at risk of missing the boat.”
Digitizing is the first step toward reaping the productivity and efficiency gains promised by the data connectivity of the IoT. Muilenburg acknowledged that Boeing is just beginning to create what he called a “digital thread” connecting the company’s machines, processes and systems, from design to manufacture to customer delivery to service. “We’re about 10% of the way there now,” he said.
ThyssenKrupp, a global manufacturer of elevators and escalators, is leveraging the IoT for improvements in the maintenance of its transport systems, work that represents a large share of the company’s revenue. “When an elevator broke down in the old days, we’d send someone to fix it,” said Rory Smith, director of strategic development, Americas at ThyssenKrupp Elevator Americas. “We’ve now embarked on data-driven maintenance, using the IoT to know when an elevator will break down before it actually does.”
ThyssenKrupp partnered with Microsoft in the project, dubbed MAX. Here’s how it works: Data emerging from sensors and semiconductors affixed to the elevator to gauge its performance is sent every 12 hours through a 4G LTE modem to a control center in the cloud. Based on an algorithmic analysis, specific maintenance protocols are advised. “The data tells us everything—every door opening, every movement, every time it goes from one floor to the next,” said Smith. “Our goal is to never have an elevator fail, fixing it before it does.”