Many of the key emerging technologies shaping manufacturing today aren't as new as we might think, with some dating back as far as the 1970s.
However, they have recently become cheap enough to use on a large scale, allowing for game-changing technologies to mature – and for manufacturing to undergo a radical transformation.
This is according to Petra Sundström, Head of Digital Business Development, Crushing & Screening at Sandvik, the Stockholm-based engineering group specialising in tooling, materials technology, mining and construction. The group employs some 42 000 people in 160 countries.
Sundström was speaking at the Digital Difference in Manufacturing convention in Sandviken, Sweden, earlier in May. The event was co-hosted by Microsoft and Sandvik.
Here's how she and her co-panelists see manufacturing changing:
1. Internet of Things
The IoT – or network of physical objects embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and connectivity that allows them to collect and exchange data – has helped make manufacturing faster, more efficient and more cost-effective.
From advancing data analytics to helping businesses move from reactive maintenance to predictive maintenance, the consensus was that smart machines equal greater efficiency and less spending.
According to a presentation by BMW's Future Team Leader Andreas Hees, Smart Transport Robots have been a welcome addition to the factory floor.
BMW uses autonomous transport systems both indoors and outdoors. "Autonomous transport systems such as tugger trains or Smart Transport Robots are increasingly used to transport goods within production halls," Hees said.
BMW is piloting an automation kit that allows conventional tugger trains of any brand to be upgraded to be autonomous – going beyond the capabilities of earlier driverless tugger trains, too. BMW also piloted Smart Transport Robots for transporting roll containers through logistics areas.
3. Artificial intelligence
Hees told delegates that AI was used at various points during the manufacturing process at BMW's plants in order to save costs and streamline production. Breakdowns can be predicted and maintenance technicians can intervene quickly if needed.
4. Virtual reality
VR allows the user to be immersed in a computer-generated world. This is great for fun and games, as is widely accepted; but it's also ideal for manufacturing, where mistakes can be expensive or dangerous – and it's best to have training or trial runs in a virtual environment.
Capgemini’s 2018 report on immersive technology stated that at least three in four companies with large-scale AR/VR implementations noted operational benefits of over 10%. The report emphasised a key return on investment of VR was a reduction in duration and cost of projects.
5. Augmented reality
A sub-category of VR, AR is used increasingly as well. Here, computer-generated imagery is superimposed on the real world, allowing key information to be "added" to the existing environment.
For example, instead of referring to a smartphone, tablet or computer, a manufacturer can overlay important information on the actual work scene.
AR can also be used in inventory picking – rather than cumbersome printing processes – or to streamline inspections, or in training.
6. 3D printing
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing covers a wide range of processes.
Broadly, it describes manufacturing by material being added together layer by layer (as opposed to subtractive manufacturing, where items are created by cutting away from a block of material).
According to Sandvik VP and head of R&D and Operations, Mikael Schuisky, some key advantages of additive manufacturing include: faster repairs; design freedom (as it is easier to make some complex or tricky shapes); lightweight components and easy mass customisation.
7. Big Data
Advances in data analytics have big implications for manufacturing in several areas – but a key development is in safety.
Sandvik Digital Services Portfolio Manager Thomas van Hecke told delegates that the aim was to bring businesses from being reactive to proactive and eventually to being predictive. Efficient data collection and analysis across plants could achieve this, he said.
Blockchain has been predicted as a disruptive technology in several industries, from finance to healthcare and security. Sundström believes it also has the potential to be disruptive in mining, where it can be used to improve transparency in tracing the origins of minerals.
Drones can improve efficiency and capacity across large plants, believes Sundström. They can be used several stages of the manufacturing process – from inspections and quality monitoring to deliveries of spare parts.
10. Digital twins
Much like a digital model, a so-called digital twin is a dynamic digital representation of a product, service or process.
Using analysis of applicable data, the digital twin allows for the product or system to be monitored and ready for problems before they occur. Design improvements can also be developed continually using various simulations.
Asked how close a digital twin typically was to its "real" counterpart, Siemens Director Utilities Nordic and Baltic Åsa Svedenheim said the virtual model was usually continually evolving and "as good as the data you put in".
* Fin24 was hosted by Microsoft and Sandvik in Sweden.