The factory of the future will be inhabited by 3D printers, robots, and other advanced machines, all driven by software.
Andy Pye looks in more detail at what that entails.
For decades, robots have performed a multitude of pick and place functions in many industries that would have previously been filled less efficiently by human workers, even outside traditional application areas, such as the automotive industry.
Research published by analyst firm Gartner has predicted that one in three jobs will be automated using robotics or software by 2025.
A recent report from International Data Corporation reinforces these findings, claiming that the robot market is set to boom in the next three years, growing at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 17%.
New approaches to human-machine interaction are also emerging in the form of traditional interfaces like touchscreens and programming tools.
One of the consequences of increasing manufacturing automation is that the parameters of a processing system may be adjusted with a quick change of menu options on a control panel, leading to smaller and smaller batch numbers. Improved vision and conveyor tracking, advanced gripping tools, wash-down capabilities, and ease of integration mean that the latest generation of robots combines affordability, reliability, and speed with the flexibility of quick product changeover.
3D printing can create one-off custom products and non-standard, complex designs as a single unit. The process is on the verge of making the leap from being used for rapid prototyping to developing into recognised manufacturing technology. In the past, it was primarily used to produce prototypes but today, additive manufacturing is used in many industries for (small and medium) series manufacturing.
The production of high-quality plastic and metal parts is no longer problematic and also provides a significant competitive advantage in addition to reduced costs. Metal laser melting is enjoying growing interest.
It’s dull, but factories are full of fans and pumps and similar devices. According to the Carbon Trust, running motors uses almost two-thirds of the electricity consumed by UK industry. In fact, the cost of running a motor for a year can be 10 times what it cost to buy in the first place. According to GAMBICA director Steve Brambley, 97% of the lifetime costs of a motor come from the energy it consumes:
“Running old or inefficient equipment is a false economy,” explains Brambley. “The real barrier to investment is the understanding of the lifetime cost of a system at a corporate and financial level. In contrast, I think engineers readily accept the benefits of motor control.”
Having a structured approach to repair and maintenance can save energy and reduce downtime caused by motor failure. This should include:
Specifying higher efficiency motors (at least IE3) for new and replacement applications will save money, the small additional price premium usually paying for itself in less than two years.
If the load being driven by a motor has a varying demand then a variable speed drive could save energy.
A small speed reduction can lead to substantial reductions in energy use. The most common applications are to control flow rates in fan or pump systems, as an alternative to using dampers or valves. According to industry figures, a variable speed drive can reduce energy consumption by as much as 60%, because the variable speed drive reduces the amount of energy drawn by the motor. This can translate to an annual saving of as much as £9000 – just on one centrifugal pump or fan.
Measuring a motor’s output, and monitoring trends will help identify areas to save energy. Where output changes unexpectedly, an investigation may identify simple maintenance issues or a potentially serious problem.
And, of course, the simplest saving method of all – switch it off!! Automatic switch-off controls or manual switch-off procedures can both play a part.
True interconnectivity relies on the uninhibited free flow of data, using standard protocols, rather than proprietary networks. The Internet of Things (IoT) has made the modern plant a hive of automated data transfer, facilitating lean manufacturing, quicker decision making and smart raw data analysis.
Traditionally, the options were to only buy one brand, buy gateways between the controllers or stick to one industrial Ethernet protocol. Now, standard protocols help ensure communications between applications and vendors can write them into their own devices.
One consequence of this is that remote monitoring of equipment is being progressively introduced in many industries to minimise the need for on-site maintenance and frequent call-outs. It uses sensor technology and monitoring devices linked by standard protocols to generate the data required to monitor the plant.
ZigBee is a suite of high-level communication protocols used to create personal area networks built from small, low-power digital radios and which can cover a large area – many devices that use ZigBee are powered by battery. The technology is intended to be simpler and less expensive than other wireless personal area networks (WPANs), such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
Applications for Zigbee are those that require short-range low-rate wireless data transfer and it is often used in industrial automation and physical plant operation, associated with machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and the Internet of Things (IoT).
A concern emerging with Zigbee, and which is far in advance of applicable standards, relates to perceived security flaws within IoT devices. Senior IS auditor Tobias Zillner of IOT firm Cognosec claims there are principal security risks in ZigBee implementations. Cognosec has published its findings in a Zigbee security white paper.
Which leads naturally to cybersecurity: mention the manufacturing industry or the shop floor to many cybersecurity “experts” and varying degrees of puzzlement ensue.
Of course, those of us who keep close to manufacturing and automation are well aware of a few well-documented instances of security breaches affecting manufacturing. We can expect the frequency and severity of attacks on companies’ manufacturing assets to increase with time.
Potentially, the consequences of infecting safety-critical automation systems in this way are catastrophic. Breaches are facilitated by the responsibility for computers on the shop floor often falling outside the remit of the IT department. Only recently has it been realised that the shop floor can be the weak link in the integrity of a company’s IT system. Whilst much effort has been put into securing the business IT side, many shop floors are full of vulnerabilities.
Surprisingly, there are few security apps available that can monitor Internet of Things devices, let you know about any new emerging attack vectors, and tell you about any recent compromises.
Another major vulnerability is emerging with BYOD (which stands for Bring Your Own Device), something which employees are increasingly expecting to be able to do, and which employers are reluctantly having to admit they are having difficulty controlling.
Poorly trained employees are a huge liability, but keeping them educated about the risks is the first step towards putting you back in control and implementing a cyber-security policy for shop floor workers.