The concept of “smart” locations has been making inroads for quite some time now. Think of “smart homes” where lights, kitchen appliances and temperatures can be controlled via smartphones.
The “smart factory” is the next frontier in this technology, taking the long-established fields of sensors and automation and uniting them with through-facility connectivity, data mining, and remote monitoring and control from anywhere. This combination promises a bright future of new potential for innovation, efficiency and performance improvements throughout any manufacturing or industrial facility that chooses to adopt it.
How Does the Smart Factory Operate?
Smart sensors are the underlying basis for today’s concept of a smart, connected facility. While industrial sensors have been around for decades, smart sensors make an impact by:
- Providing always-on, wireless connectivity and data transmission
- Enabling 24/7/365 real-time monitoring of machinery condition and performance
- Facilitating data analysis for more effective and productive decision-making in real time
Sensors are most often present on (or in the vicinity of) equipment on the facility floor, but can also be used in inventory rooms and parts cribs as well as to streamline and improve those aspects of the operation.
Due to the age of most equipment currently in use in manufacturing facilities, most smart sensors are aftermarket installations. That said, almost all new equipment purchased will include integrated sensors that are ready to get up and running as soon as the machine is plugged in and connected.
How Is the Smart Factory Different?
Today’s sensor and automation technology combine to set smart factories apart from facilities that incorporate older, more traditional versions of those technologies. While automation has yielded production speed improvements for decades, and sensors have long been around to collect data, the following benefits illustrate the true impact of smart technology:
- Real-time data collection: By connecting to the internal network (most often via Wi-Fi), smart sensors do much more than just collect data for later analysis: they enable around-the-clock, real-time data monitoring that provides unprecedented insight into equipment operation, right at the moment it is occurring. This can lead to improvements in production quality and efficiency, as well as early detection of potential maintenance or safety issues.
- More data for more accurate decision-making: The ease with which sensors — whether integrated or aftermarket — can be installed and connected throughout the facility means that a massive amount of information is now available to drive analytical, data-based decision-making in every aspect of the operation. From more accurate benchmarking to detection of subtle fluctuations in equipment performance, data enables improved speed, accuracy and productivity.
- More autonomous automation: Smart sensors — in combination with advanced automation technology — enable equipment to run more independently. Overnight operation, remote monitoring and control, and real-time alerts mean that equipment operators — who will never be fully replaced by automation — are able to be more productive, safer and effective, while enabling faster and more efficient production.
What Are the Pros and Cons of the Smart Factory?
As with any new advance in technology, smart sensors offer a balance of benefits and concerns.
- More efficient maintenance through early detection of potential problems
- More accurate inventory management
- Greater insight into the supply chain, with increased leverage to control costs
- A massive amount of data to drive decision-making
- Improved production quality
- Improved worker safety
- More desirable manufacturing jobs, with a greater focus on data analysis
Potential cons include:
- Friction in adoption if employees are resistant to change
- Fear of replacement by automation (an unfounded fear, since knowledgeable personnel are required to set up sensors, monitor results and critically analyze data)
- A requirement for new skills, such as data analysis, which can turn into a benefit as a way to attract a new generation of manufacturing workers
- Training requirements for workers
It is unlikely to ever find a new technology that does not encounter similar resistance and friction on its way to yielding vast improvements. With this information in mind, you now understand the full picture of the smart facility and the new face of sensors and automation in manufacturing. This technology is poised to continue evolving and expanding, ushering a new face and future of industry.
Author bio: Andrew Kominek is Marketing Manager for the Micro Analysis Group at KEYENCE Corporation, a leading provider of digital microscopes and advanced 3D surface analysis systems. He has more than 15 years of experience in marketing, product management and consulting.