Nobody can deny that the Internet plays an important role in our daily lives. US IoT provider PlumChoice suggested already in 2017 that 79% of consumers has at least one connected device such as a smart thermostat, a smart lock or Alexa in their home. Still, the biggest evolution does not take place in our living room but within the industry. Connected machines and sensors collect data that thanks to artificial intelligence provide us with important insights about the production. As a result, the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) and the corresponding digitisation of the manufacturing industry have a major impact on how we produce today and tomorrow.
First and foremost, the Internet-of-Things (IoT) assumes that physical objects are virtually connected with one another. They talk to each other and exchange information. This generates machines that know when a part must be replaced, systems that adjust their parameters whenever the ambient conditions change or robots that can assemble a random series of parts. In other words, objects, devices and machines are becoming ‘smart’: they are equipped with sensors that capture and process information or transmit it through the cloud and, subsequently, act accordingly.
Machines are becoming more intelligent. They have enormous computing power, learn from their mistakes and learn from each other as each individual machine in the system provides information. So, it’s no wonder that the media regularly come up with doomsday scenarios about so-called killer robots.
In addition, Hollywood feeds our fear of machines that have become smarter than humans with scenarios in which it is only a matter of time until the robots turn against us. Still, it won’t come to that. Machines react to impulses on the basis of algorithms. They cannot think for themselves and are still controlled by the programmers, scientists and operators who design and operate them.
We cannot ignore that digitisation makes companies vulnerable. Just as your and my e-mail, servers of companies may be targeted by hackers. The increasing number of devices and systems that are mutually interconnected are potentially lethal instruments when falling into the wrong hands. Hackers can disrupt businesses in many ways. Think of ransomware: taking data ‘hostage’ to be released only after having paid a ransom.
Still, a survey within the manufacturing industry in the Netherlands shows that only one in ten companies expects cybercrime to be a hazard to the organisation (source: MT.nl). Yet, cybercrime is costing the Dutch industry an estimated 10 billion euro per year. It is obvious that the digital resilience of companies is subject to improvement but unfortunately it does not seem to be high on their list of priorities.
One of the biggest advantages of IIoT, the Industrial Internet-of-Things, is the increased efficiency. For instance: thanks to sensors that immediately raise alarm, one can react quickly whenever something goes wrong. But more important still: thanks to information about vibrations or temperature changes within the system, it can be predicted when a component will need replacing. This allows to optimally schedule machine maintenance operations and to minimise machine downtimes. Smart condition monitoring and preventive maintenance can generate substantial savings on maintenance costs and costs linked to machine downtimes.
Localisation technology is another example of added value thanks to connected systems. Thanks to sensor fusion, indoor localisation – where GPS does not suffice – has become a lot more accurate and faster. This enables a number of interesting applications. Advanced tracking systems make sure that operators are spared fruitless searches for misplaced tools. Drones can be used for stock-taking operations. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) transport parts from one assembly module to another. By using AGV fork-lift trucks, a Finnish dairy producer would have reduced the costs linked to damage to the production shop floor, other vehicles and its stock by 90% (you can watch the video here).
IIoT improves productivity, efficiency and safety. However, it is also expected that IIoT will lead to a major disruption of the industry or, in any case, to the further advancement of new business models. Machines and vehicles are equipped with so many sensors that they are no longer sold as a mere product but also offered as a service. The manufacturer can monitor, adapt, update and service them during their whole period of use. In this way, companies ‘leasing’ these systems can focus on work itself and need no longer worry about the condition of the machines they are working with. The manufacturer does this in their place.
Another sensitive issue is the role of man in tomorrow’s factories. Because of the falling cost of sensors, the rapid deployment of software and general technological advances, companies are increasingly investing in automation, i.e. robots.
Will human operators disappear completely from tomorrow’s factories? No. When looking back through history, we see that technology has always taken over from man but only insofar as it comes to work where man offers little added value. But in this era of hyper-personalisation, we use robots for the so-called four Ds: dull, dangerous, dirty and dear (or cost-saving), the – sometimes literally – hard work in other words. But the final touch, flexibility and creativity still lie with the human operator. We therefore strongly believe in the potential of cobots. These are collaborative robots that are no longer locked in a cage but work together with human operators and with one another thanks to advanced control mechanisms and artificial intelligence. To be able to manufacture added-value products (mass customisation) at the cost of batch production, we need flexibility within the production area. This is possible through the efficient collaboration of man and machine. In Western countries with high labour costs, this is the way forward for manufacturing companies to remain competitive in an international context.
Find out how we efficiently assemble a random set of light switches by letting man and machine work together.
Kurt De Grave - Senior Researcher