The phrase ‘Industry 4.0’ implies that we could all wake up tomorrow to the dawn of a new robotic future. In truth, intelligent robots are already a reality. Jonathan Wilkins explains the benefits of increased levels of automation
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Author: Jonathan Wilkins, marketing manager, European Automation

There is a current industry trend that sees the phrase ‘Industry 4.0’ bandied about as though we could all wake up tomorrow to the dawn of a new robotic future. In truth, the idea of the smart factory and intelligent robots has been around for a while now and we have nothing to fear. Here, Jonathan Wilkins, marketing managing of European Automation, explains why increased levels of automation are a good thing.

In 1942, science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov bestowed upon the world The Three Laws of Robotics in his collection of short stories I, Robot. This was the basis for a reasonably successful film by the same name. However, this is not the type of smart machines that we are likely to witness today or even tomorrow.

In the 1980s, American carmakers feared they might be completely wiped out by cheaper and more efficient Japanese competitors. This led to car manufacturers in Motor City, Detroit, envisioning an illustrious solution to beat their rivals – ‘lights-out’ manufacturing. The vision was of a factory that could ultimately run on its own with minimal human interaction. They would turn the lights out in the factory and leave robots to do all the work unsupervised.

However, this has not quite been the case with the manufacturing industry until fairly recently. Technological advances and the internet of things have resulted in interconnected devices forming a convergence point between the physical and digital world. The more information stored in a system, the better positioned machines are to make smarter and timelier decisions about things normally left to human judgement.

Most factories now use processes such as laser cutting and injection moulding that operate with minimal human interaction. Additive manufacturing machines can be left alone to print day and night once they have been designated a task. These processes benefit manufacturers by minimising defects and downtime, therefore boosting efficiency.

Next-generation smart factories


Jonathan Wilkins portrait - Image

Jonathan Wilkins

The Siemens (IW 1000/34) Electronic Works facility in Amberg, Germany, is a great example of the next generation of smart plants. The 108,000-square-foot high-tech facility is home to an array of smart machines that co-ordinate everything from production to the global distribution of the company’s products.

The custom-built-to-order process involves more than 1.6 billion components for over 50,000 annual product variations, for which Siemens sources about 10,000 materials from 250 suppliers to make the plant’s 950 different products. One of the lines in the Siemens plant, which operates 24 hours a day, requires no human intervention at all once calibrated, except when supplies of components must be replenished.

Thanks to the data-processing capacity of the devices in the system, it is possible to generate information, statistics and trends that allow manufacturers to make their production processes lean and more fuel efficient.

Despite the endless variables within this system, a Gartner industry research study conducted in 2010 found that the plant boasts a reliability rate of more than 99 per cent, with only 15 defects in every million.

The most important feature of the Siemens plant and the key to all future smart factories is dense integration. By creating a mesh of interconnected technologies cooperating to ensure a more efficient whole, the idea of lights out manufacturing might not be as far away as previously imagined.

However, machines are not taking jobs away from humans. The Amberg plant still employs 1,100 workers – roughly the same number as two decades ago. At the moment, the implementation of smart automation robots, rather than making humans redundant in the system, moreover changes our role from worker to overseer and improves overall productivity.

Things like Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) are not really intelligent; they can only do what they are instructed to do. Machines must obey algorithms and cannot make creative decisions when presented with unprecedented situations. Thus, the human role in factories has now started to shift towards programming and maintaining these machines.

Engineers in today’s automated factory need to be as handy with a tablet as they are with a screwdriver and I think this change worries people; maybe even more so than if robots really were replacing the human element in manufacturing. If we relate this to Darwin’s theory of evolution – as technology evolves, so does the need to adapt within our work roles.

In addition to worries regarding evolution, many companies are concerned about the risk for the stability of their already highly complex production and supply chain systems. They are reluctant to interfere with a functioning system unless the benefits are really clear.

New dawn


In the future, the sophisticated software implanted in factory equipment will help machines self-regulate and make more autonomous decisions. The smart dream is one that sees problems in automated systems detected, diagnosed in real time and fixed by the system itself automatically. To be really effective, the system must recognise errors and know how to correct them without manual intervention.

To get to this stage, the German and US governments have already allocated funds for strategic research and the implementation of Industry 4.0 and smart machines. Germany has dedicated €200 million for projects like its Federal Ministry of Education and Research’s it’s OWL or RES-COM schemes. Similarly, the USA has launched several initiatives like the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition.

The day the American car manufacturers dreamed about, the day when factory lights could be switched off, leaving robots to do all the work, is not yet upon us. Hopefully this article has managed to dispel any fears that when that day does come, it will not mean the end of human interaction in the workplace. We still need to look after and maintain our mechanical brethren.

For most automation companies, the move will be a gradual one, an evolution rather than a revolution. This is why continuity with older systems will still be essential for manufacturing in the years to come.

With this in mind, when things go wrong and production breaks down, it is comforting to know that companies such as European Automation can send key parts, even obsolete parts, such as older generations of drives, motors, PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) and HMIs (Human Machine Interfaces) out in as little as nine hours, to reduce costly downtime.

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  Author: Jonathan Wilkins, marketing manager, European Automation There is a current industry trend that sees the phrase ‘Industry 4.0’ bandied about as though we could all wake up tomorrow to the dawn of a new robotic future. In truth, the idea of the smart factory and intelligent robots has been...