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Made-to-measure manufacturing made easy?

10 minutes | 08 Nov 2018

Industry 4.0 is driving the smart factory revolution

It is facilitating the growth of bespoke manufacturing in the process with an array of innovative technologies.

Today’s markets want personalised, customised, unique products that are as cheap and reliable as their mass-produced counterparts. As expectations reach ever-increasing highs, manufacturers are using transformational technologies to facilitate the demand for such bespoke products, at the same time navigating the traditional challenges of maintaining quality, speed and agility.

What really sets the fourth industrial revolution apart from the last industrial revolution is a focus on big data and analytics. This is evidenced by the growing demands of mass customisation and the flexibility that acts as the driving force behind it.


Bespoke manufacturing

As the smart factory becomes a reality, bespoke manufacturing is being enabled by an increasingly intelligent, dynamic process – smart manufacturing. This combination of production, information and communication technologies has to meet the rising market demands and will transform the way we make, move and market our products.

The holy grail of success is rooted in the successful integration of those systems, ultimately, across the entire manufacturing industry 4.0 supply chain. So, where greater personalisation in manufacturing is concerned, what are the key technologies and how are they facilitating the process?

industry 4.0 production line
concept: business man touching fingers with data

Additive manufacturing

The advent of Industry 4.0, 3D printing gives manufacturers the ability to create physical products, layer upon layer, from complex digital designs stored in 3D computer-aided design (CAD) files.

Using materials such as rubber, nylon, plastic, glass and metal to print real objects opens up completely new areas of use in personalised goods and prototyping, as well as major construction advantages in producing smaller batches of customised products and more complex, lightweight designs.

This marks a step change in manufacturing, both in terms of the products being produced and the process itself. As Derek Bean, Essentra Component’s Divisional Engineering Solutions Manager, explains:

“Pace, the ability to get products to market and across the line quickly, is where smart factories really strike out. 3D printing means you can have prototypes on your desk the same day, rather than waiting a week for the parts to come back.”

Artificial intelligence

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are game changers in manufacturing methods, too. They are able to add sensory information to the user’s environment and facilitate the human-machine interaction, yielding rapid visualisation and fast-tracking time to market.

Product development teams are able to refine and optimise designs at an earlier stage in the process. Digital models can be tested, analysed and simulated. The outcome is a rapid iterative design process resulting in a greater diversity of products and significant time and cost savings.

As Bean adds: “Gone are the days where you have to make multiple prototypes, so much can be carried out visually, up front in a virtual world. When you’re ready to go live or into the production environment, that digital thread guarantees that you’re getting it right first time. It’s all automated, so the data cascades through the system to get the customer product out as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Digital twin technology

The smart factory ‘sees’ in two ways:

  1. Reality – scanning technology captures factory data (machine activity, stock levels, etc).
  2. Metaphorically – the digital ‘twin’ is a virtual model of a product, process or service.

This pairing of the physical and virtual worlds facilitates the analysis of data and monitoring systems in order to head-off problems before they even arise. Digital twin technology helps companies develop a deeper understanding of their customers’ needs, developing existing products further and enhancing personalisation.

Machine utilisation

A smart factory that is running autonomous, flexible production lines is able to maximise machine utilisation. Once networked, machines and devices can communicate with each other. This also allows the machines to be externally monitored, analysed and modelled for future improved performance and service.

machine, or ‘island’, can activate itself in response to a specific order, whether that’s for one component or a product variant, then deactivate itself when not needed for the following product or batch.

Finished and boxed product in foreground with employees in background

“Original equipment manufacturers can monitor their machines remotely and dial in to see if there’s any maintenance that needs to be carried out. The machines keep running and it’s far more efficient.”

Product carriers can also learn the language of the production machinery, with messages about each product’s progress being sent to and from the cloud (8) in order to inform overall strategy and communicate with machines further downstream to reschedule operations as different products turn up. These ‘islands’ open up a whole new world of personalised products at similar cost to mass-produced ones.

Likewise, their performance data can be monitored constantly, generating predictive analytics or smart data to understand failure conditions and track anomalies, reducing wasted labour and the risk of unexpected and undiagnosed equipment failures.

As Bean explains: “The input of new technology brings with it new levels of sophistication and capability that just weren’t there a decade ago. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) can monitor their machines remotely and dial in to see if there’s any preventative or predictive maintenance that needs to be carried out. The machines keep running, there are no sudden shocks and it’s, fundamentally, far more efficient.”

Integrated systems

For Essentra Components, the key to being Industry 4.0-ready is in embracing modern technologies as they come along and linking them together: “Historically, businesses took up CAD, then they had scheduling programmes, followed by production systems. Essentra is integrating all of those packages so that data flows from one to the other, removing confusion, boosting productivity and accelerating the process,” continues Bean.

“In an injection moulding manufacturing environment like ours, you need smart systems working 24/7, all linked together from the initial input of digital data through to product delivery, streamlining the whole process. Ultimately, customers will demand quality, efficiency and that costs are kept down; and that will drive it across the industry.”

Open Manufacturing Language (OML)

For all that smart data you need a common standard and a shared language for the machines to communicate with each other, both inside and outside the factory walls. A hotchpotch of incompatible communications protocols is a big challenge for the industry, which is, therefore, ripe for some ‘normalisation’. Open Manufacturing Language (OML) is one such free, open standard that’s stepping up to provide a single, normalised, vendor-neutral communication interface.

It’s a robust real-time, comprehensive shop-floor communication standard. This includes detailed, bi-directional, machine-to-machine communication and allows machines across assembly production processes to talk to each other directly.

Managed through a community of industry members, OML represents a common language and terminology between teams, companies, suppliers and beyond, and in so doing supports evolving Industry 4.0 technologies, opening up the real potential of smart factories in meeting customers’ needs, however particular.