Published on March 24th, 2017 | by Robert Harrison

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Engineering smart factories of the future

Professor Robert Harrison talks to The Manufacturer about engineering ‘smart factories’.

If you haven’t heard of smart factories yet, you’ve probably heard of industry 4.0 or the fourth industrial revolution. Smart factories are the next big predicted change to affect manufacturing, causing a new revolution in industry.

By integrating technology and information technology in real time, traditional factories will turn from cost centres into profitable innovation centres. Cyber-physical systems (CPS) will monitor the physical processes within modular structured factories, and a virtual copy of the physical world will be mined for data in real time, allowing for the making of decentralised decisions. These new systems could, for example, identify run-time optimisation through feeding back information related to product, process, and production resources, or identify best engineering re-use. We will be able to be ‘smart’ in our manufacturing choices right from product design and evaluation, through manufacturing, the supply chain, and service.

The increasing availability and use of distributed industrial CPS devices and systems, if aligned with the Internet of Things (IoT) and Internet of Services (IoS), could radically change the nature of manufacturing and provide new opportunities to develop more effective, finer grained, and self-configuring automation systems.

But as manufacturers, we will need to make changes. To realise effective CPS for industrial automation implies the need for engineering tools capable of supporting distributed systems. This is coupled with a major shift in emphasis from traditional monolithic, specialism-based, isolated engineering tools and methods towards integrated, cloud-based infrastructures based around an IoS and associated data.

Current Current automation systems engineering methods are frequently criticised for their poor performance in supporting re-use, and are often unable to effectively validate automation solutions across supply chains. Integration between real and virtual system often less than ideal, which makes it difficult to plot an efficient automation system lifecycle from specification and design, through commissioning, validation, operation, and reuse of systems. Simply put, the engineering process we have at the moment is disjointed and it could be so much smarter.

Another often cited problem, is that the majority of the automation tools currently at our disposal are vendor-specific and support largely closed-control environments. While they may offer good point-solution functionality, are well supported, and can deliver robust operational systems, they often have limited agility. These factors lead to delays and ultimately to poor lifecycle uses of information, with lessons learned not being fed back into subsequent iterations of the system.

Cyber-physical systems are distributed, heterogeneous systems connected via networks, and usually associated with the concept of the IoT. The vision for the new CPS lifecycle is one of seamless integration between engineering build and operational phases. The digital model continuously updates to and from the physical system, and lessons learned are fed back into subsequent refinements of the system, making them ever smarter.

At WMG, we are focusing on the design and implementation of automation systems engineering tools and methods adapted to the specific nature of CPS. Part of a new engineering software environment, vueOne, is currently being used to support Ford’s virtual engineering activity in powertrain assembly in the UK. vueOne is also being used to support engineering of battery and electric motor make-like-production systems in partnership with a range of automotive companies.

Properly supporting the full manufacturing lifecycle is important if we are to maximise the business benefits for the smart factory. At a simple level, once a digital model of a production station has been created, this information can be utilized via Apps on mobile devices to enable support for production systems on the shop floor. This may be in the form of viewing digital data for monitoring and maintenance purposes. In more sophisticated scenarios, augmented reality can be provided, overlaying key system information visually over physical views of the production system, which is something we’re developing a suite of mobiles tools for at the moment.

A key aspect, I believe, that will ensure smart factories are truly successful, is having a pipeline to progressively develop and then maximize the impact of innovative automation systems. For example, developing proof-of-concept systems from bench-top demonstrators, through full-scale pilot implementations, make-like production lines, and ultimately to factory installation, working closely with industry partners at all phases of this activity.

To find out more about the Automation Systems work at WMG click here .

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