An emerging trend to improve efficiency and product outputs is for factories to get smart. Getting smart means utilizing top talent and building out new industrial infrastructure to handle more connected devices and sensors across an entire production line. New initiatives in automation, Industrial Internet infrastructure, and connected factory design is expected to yield these new growth and value-add opportunities across all manufacturing niches in the coming years..
The value of connected automation
Automation has been gradually improving factory efficiency and reducing labor costs for decades. In recent years, the incorporation of even more automation into factory equipment has been coupled with the development of technology that allows thousands of these devices to communicate.
Automation in smart factories yields exceptional value from this cross-device communication. In traditional automated environments, the robotics and machinery is limited to communicating across only a few devices along a single production line, and is typically managed by human labor very closely. With smart factory automation, however, some production lines can be managed without a single human operator. Siemen’s new smart factory in Germany, for example, uses connected machinery and RFID technology in order to remotely manage entire orders, only requiring human labor for the input of the order. The order can be customized, managed, produced, and sorted all with a series of connected machinery, essentially allowing for a 24-hour production cycle with minimal labor costs.
Industrial Internet emerges as a new industry
Companies like GE are paving the way with new infrastructure methods to power the smart factory of the future. At conferences like Mind + Machines, GE has been working to develop concepts that many factories and facilities can consider when designing and implementing smart factories. The process of building and developing the infrastructure that supports a factory is known as an Industrial Internet. Its structure differs, as most devices are autonomous, with up to thousands of sensors and computers managed by a single operator. Ensuring that a facility can meet these design challenges depends on smart Industrial Internet infrastructure. Given that most factories are designed around the products they manufacture, often with typical human labor, incorporating automation and Industrial Internet designs into those spaces requires ingenuity to minimize implementation costs.
Industrial Internet design also must address growing concerns about security and safety. A connected factory may ultimately yield a more efficient production environment, but it can also increase the risk of digital threats, especially in highly competitive environments, like those that operate under military or government contracts. Since every device is connected over Wi-Fi and Ethernet, any user with unauthorized access can take advantage of these Internet standards to damage or halt production, or even steal sensitive information. Industrial Internet designers will be soon required to design safety standards to mitigate digital threats, limit outside access, and ensure that factories do not grind to a halt if targeted.
Making sense of innovation
Ultimately, these initiatives will bring new opportunities to add value, while also generating new concerns for safety and efficiency in the facilities that use them. Implementing a 100- percent automated operation presents numerous growth opportunities. Having everything managed through a single Industrial Internet environment allows for fewer human operators, and faster, more efficient communication through equipment on the factory floor. As long as firms can ensure secure, cost-effective ways to implement these solutions, it won’t be long until smart factories become the norm for high-yield, precision operations worldwide.