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The Factories of the Future Will Be Fast, Flexible, and Free of Wires

AI, 5G, and the IoT will allow factories to produce new goods on the fly

2 min read

Opening illustration by JD King.
Illustration: JD King

The future of manufacturing is software defined. You don’t have to look further than ABB to understand why companies are turning to 5G networks, artificial intelligence, and computer vision. The Swiss company is using these new tools to boost reliability and agility in its nearly 300 factories around the world, which produce a host of goods, from simple plastic zip ties to complex robotic arms.

For ABB and other companies pushing software-defined networking, it’s all about being safer while adapting to a growing clamor for personalized products.

When it comes to safety, adding more sensors to machines and deploying AI can make the end product more consistently reliable. At its Heidelberg factory, for example, ABB makes circuit breakers. But even with 99.999 percent reliability at ABB’s factory, faulty circuit breakers would still kill 3,000 people a year, according to Guido Jouret, the company’s chief digital officer.

People can’t achieve 100 percent reliability when making and inspecting the completed circuit breakers—but a camera with machine learning can. When that camera detects any sort of variation, factory managers can go back to the machine to figure out what’s causing that defect.

Boosting safety and reliability isn’t exactly news to anyone who has followed the adoption of Japanese Kaizen or Six Sigma manufacturing, efforts to improve reliability and reduce waste, in the automotive industry. But adding automation and robots is becoming more important today as our culture increasingly wants customized products. These so-called lean-manufacturing methods allow factory managers to reconfigure their production lines on the fly.

“It’s not always about being more efficient,” Jouret says. “It’s about being more agile.”

Kiva Allgood, the head of Internet of Things and automotive at Ericsson, calls the shift from efficiency to agility a move away from economies of scale toward an economy of one. In other words, the inefficiencies traditionally associated with making low quantities of goods will no longer apply. She saw this change coming as an executive at General Electric. Now she’s working on the wireless technology that will help make this possible.

But before we can reprogram the factory floor, we have to understand it. That starts with individual machines. We’ll need manufacturing equipment with sensors measuring both the machine’s work and the machine’s health. This is the stage where many manufacturers are today.

The factory should also have sensors that provide context to the overall environment, including temperature, workers’ movements, and more. Armed with that understanding as well as computer-vision algorithms designed to detect flaws in the manufactured product, it will become possible to quickly repurpose robots to make something new.

Perhaps more interestingly, future agile factories will remove the wires littering factory floors. Historically, factory automation has meant building a rigidly defined manufacturing line dictated by the robots making the product. But with developing tech, factories will free those robots from their data and power wires, and replace the wires with low-latency wireless 5G networks. Then, factories can turn days-long reconfiguration efforts into an overnight project.

By emphasizing agility over efficiency, the factories of the future will be able to turn on a dime to meet the demands of our fast-paced society.

This article appears in the July 2019 print issue as “One Factory Fits All.”

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