Automation of auxiliary processes is the key to Smart Factory

Źródło: AIUT

The essence of a factory, based on the Industry 4.0 technology, will be to incorporate further areas and production structures into already automated ecosystem of key processes. A digital expansion should be radical, if we are to speak of effective and efficient management of the manufacturing process. This means a gradual automation and robotization of all business-oriented processes – so far overlooked – in the area of internal logistics, among others.

The market demand is evolving continuously, forcing companies to reorganize their existing production strategies. Based on traditional automation systems, plants have looked for new business solutions to reduce downtime, organize a safe work environment using mobile AGV robots and cobots, and finally – to take advantage of the potential of advanced analysis of data acquired within the implemented IoT ecosystem.

For the best possible management of the manufacturing process in real time, it is crucial to enhance the competence of the IoT ecosystem in the management of auxiliary processes and company resources. According to the concept of Industry 4.0 all production processes should be integrated, monitored and thoroughly analyzed in order to achieve the best management based on the actual state of the factory. In this way, technology can not only inform people of the need for repairs but also, and above all, anticipate possible breakdowns. Costly downtime becomes less likely.

In a perfect variant, a production line is implemented with the use of virtual commissioning technology, which allows to test software, simulate mechanics and process automation, and as a result to detect design errors – in the virtual sphere. This shortens the time of actual start-up, especially of large production lines. At the same time, system suppliers have the ability to integrate the best digital transformation technologies according to the needs of the plant. Individual approach to digitalization of auxiliary processes will depend on solutions available on the market. A good example is the evolution of the competence of AGV robots. Today, these are autonomous vehicles, supported by natural navigation, safe in cooperation with the plant staff.

Radical approach to process automation: new optics

The automation of key production processes will soon cease to be sufficient and the market is aware of this. Companies look for further areas of optimization, but there are certain conditions and challenges. On the one hand, they are set by the consumer market – more and more hungry for new products, at the same time requiring their customization, which results in the need to adapt production lines to shorter series. On the other hand, the competences and requirements of employees grow. Factories have faced a shortage of qualified workforce in selected areas. Automation and robotization of processes, where a human being can be replaced by a machine, become a business need. It is therefore necessary to extend the scope of automation with additional processes, which is what the Radical Automation concept says.

The companies shall be prepared for a change in optics. The approach to the automation process should be holistic and include all business-relevant areas and resources of the manufacturing company, which will be combined into one coherent communication ecosystem. This literal radicalism should be treated in terms of automation of processes, which until now have been overlooked or postponed. It should be emphasized that the goal of process improvement is not to exclude people. Intelligent production is one that assumes cooperation between a man and a robot, and optimization of only those processes in which it is justified: where a man is not needed or will not want to be needed in the future, e.g. because of monotonous sequences within the process. Moreover, as Ben Reynolds notes in his book “The Coming Revolution: Capitalism in the 21st Century”, “(…) automation does not always lead to a decrease in demand for manpower (…)”. History shows that there are certain structural causes for radical automation. We may also have to accept the fact that we will never have enough skilled production workers available within the workforce, to keep pace with expanding processes.

A human being is supposed to be an added value thanks to his unique competences. The staff of the plant is irreplaceable in those areas of production and logistics where the complexity of process makes the implementation of traditional automation economically unjustified and difficult to accept temporarily or when we talk about supervisory processes. In addition, increasing competencies of personnel with simultaneous popularization of robotization will allow to better utilize the potential of employees in other areas.

In this perspective, a holistic, radical approach to automation should be understood in two ways. First of all, it is a radical increase in involvement in process automation, exceeding the company’s expectations. Secondly, it is a radically expanded sense of which production and auxiliary processes can be under automation.

It pays to leave a comfort zone

Excellence in traditional automation has led to the development of radical automation technology with the use of the Internet of Things (IoT) solutions. The fact that IoT solutions for the industry have a positive impact on the development of the company is undeniable. According to the IDC (International Data Corporation), today’s IoT market in Central and Eastern Europe alone is valued at over 11 billion USD. However, as with any new direction, the approach to the digitalization of subsequent processes in plants is considered in terms of both profit and risk. Factories need to see their way out of the comfort zone where, based on the automation of key processes, a certain level of efficiency has been achieved that meets current demand, or deficiencies are not yet severe enough to invest in new areas. Market forecasts are unambiguous in this respect. The development of the IoT ecosystem based on the automation of auxiliary processes will determine the long-term development of the organization and the growth of its position on the market.

Autonomous AGV with facility location system

The new quality of service in the area of automation of internal logistics processes is clearly visible in the case of autonomous AGVs, which in the area of navigation are adapted to the needs of the plant, and cognitive analysis enables the systems to make independent decisions in real time and adapt production processes to the existing situation, without a participation of an operator. This type of self-propelled robots can cooperate with, among others, the system of internal location in the space of production halls, which provides a full picture of the current status of moving objects (forklift trucks, AGV, pallets, passive trucks, people), which allows for a very accurate analysis of traffic and further optimizations related to, among others, the deployment of fixed elements and the management of work of people. Systems that mutually increase the scope of competence are the essence of an intelligent factory. The biggest advantage, and at the same time the market expectation, is short implementation time and unprecedented flexibility and versatility of AGV robot cooperation. Moreover, the latest security systems allow for their direct cooperation with people, which means that there is no need to separate closed zones in production or warehouse areas.

Polymorphic production will make a factory more flexible

We are striving to improve the production chain – and we should be aware that it should be extended – with digitalization of new areas, but also with the use of new solutions, its links can be improved. The consumer market is mature. New expectations and customer habits have pushed factories in the direction where not only quality and speed of production are important, but also flexible production process management, so that to keep up with the needs of buyers. New consumer trends are a challenge for traditional models, where the automation of key production processes has once been established, implemented and operated. However, nowadays a rigid supply market will lead more to constraints than to development. This means the need for a new look at the implemented ecosystems of production management and the creation of new solutions such as polymorphic production. Its aim is to expand key manufacturing processes by assigning additional positions or entire production lines in virtual and real space. In such a system, individual new nests can be serviced, among others, by cobots and mobile AGV robots (ready to work with people, simple to program in order to perform new tasks), which – in a simplified way – see the production line virtually, in the form of sequences imposed by the system to be executed, such as the passage of components to the next point in the hall. This is a modern approach, crucial in the context of producing, among other things, short product series.

Technology integrators: what to expect from them?

In the latest report “IoT in the Polish economy”, commissioned by The Ministry of Digital Affairs, market experts predict that the industry will become one of the sectors that will use the Internet of Things technologies to the greatest extent. Acquisition and intelligent analysis of data in factories allows automation and synchronization of work, as well as reduction of repair costs by preventing possible failures and increasing security. This ultimately increases the efficiency and profitability of the whole institution. It is important for the company to have a well-defined business or operational goal, which can be shared with an IoT and BigData partner, with which the company will create an ecosystem of information exchange between the systems of the plant and its environment. Although there are many ways of organizing such cooperation – from consulting and technical support – it is the model of responsibility for the PRaaS process (Process Responsibility as a Service), where the parties implement common KPIs, that becomes the most business-desired model of cooperation.

Jerzy Greblicki is a director of Radical Automation branch and an Industry 4.0 Management Adviser in the company AIUT Sp. z o.o., one of the largest European system integrators for the industry.