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Smart Factories: what to expect from the factory of the future

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Andrew Minturn, Strategic Product Manager at Bosch Rexroth, explores the changes we can expect for the future of manufacturing.

Smart Factories: what to expect from the factory of the futureCompare factories of 20 years ago to those of today and in most cases they will not look too dissimilar. On the surface, that may be right, but dig a little deeper and the core will have changed as the factory adjusts to a more volatile global marketplace. Alongside increased cost pressures and heightened quality standards, consumers now expect customised products, fast delivery, greater flexibility and shorter lead times. As a result, efficient working practices are more important than ever. But how can factories of the future accommodate this?

Of course, the digital transformation – from the configuration of networked machines and systems through to the fully digitalised value stream – will be key. With some six billion objects now IoT-connected, we are already seeing manufacturers taking significant steps towards a digital future. But for some, taking the leap into the digital age is not straightforward, with the benefits of Industry 4.0 and the process of implementation not fully understood.

To understand where the benefits of digitalisation lie, Bosch Rexroth developed its own Factory of the Future, demonstrating all possibilities and exploring how manufacturers can implement them step-by-step for maximum impact. Let us explore some of the key benefits, and how close the future is.

Digitising the value stream

In the Factory of the Future, all hardware modules and functions are represented digitally in real-time. Sophisticated software collects, transfers and processes data from manufacturing and logistics to analyse, simulate and improve all processes across the value stream. On the factory floor, real-time gathering and processing of data from sensors not only enables production quality checks at the point of manufacture, but also facilitates accurate machine and system health checks through continuous monitoring.

Distributed intelligence manifests itself in all technologies and gives machine manufacturers new options: from cabinet-free drives that reduce cabling, and low-energy intelligent hydraulic power units, to assembly workstations that provide employees with work instructions adjusted to the individual's level of training and knowledge. At the same time, for factories looking to evolve gradually, older machinery can realise many of the benefits cost-effectively using a preconfigured plug-and-play IoT gateway.

Maximising flexibility

Setting the stage for increasing productivity in serial production, smart factories will make it possible to (re)configure production lines and facilities to rapidly changing requirements.

Take connected hydraulic systems as an example: sensors can be added to horizontally and vertically networked machine architectures. Predefined functions within the software can be used to control the position, velocity, distance/force, different synchronous cylinders or path-dependent braking and improve performance by dynamically adjusting flow and pressure. Managing these functions in real-time, via the software, enables users to operate more efficient when producing small batches and reduces the retooling required for new products.

Further improving flexibility, the increasing use of wireless technology has the potential to mobilise machines and plants. Instead of power cables, which effectively tie a machine to a specific place in the factory floor, machines will be powered by inductive charging from the floor of the hall, with the added benefit of 5G connectivity as a faster, more stable means of data transfer.

This functionality simplifies conversion to new processes, making factories highly flexible. Production configures itself independently to suit the product to be manufactured. Communication between machines and systems is mainly wireless. Production layouts are optimised and operating data is captured and analysed, producing real-time data that drives continuous improvement and virtually eliminates machine downtime.

Stepping into the future

What we have learned in developing the Factory of the Future is that when you consider what cannot be changed, surprisingly little remains: the floor, the walls and a roof. The rest of the factory - the machines, automation topologies, equipment, communication paths, even the people and how they work together - are subject to the changes demanded by modern manufacturing.

The notion that a process facility is too large or too old to move towards digitisation is a common one. Whether a facility chooses to take a granular approach to getting connected, or prefers the idea of a complete digital overhaul, it is important to remember that digital technologies are highly scalable, which makes them relevant to any business, of any size, at any stage of the process.

In fact, Industry 4.0 presents a host of opportunities for manufacturers to incrementally change how they do things. Putting sensors on key pieces of machinery to provide real-time insights into equipment health and making use of the Internet of Things to collect data, streamline operations and improve efficiency are just some of the benefits.

To discover more about the evolution of smart factories, explore Bosch Rexroth's Factory of the Future at www.boschrexroth.co.uk/fotf.

 
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