Digitalization and automation hold the potential to solve today’s problems and create the opportunities of tomorrow
by Keith Fox, Vice President, General Industry & Electronics, Robotics and Automation Division, ABB and Jesse Henson, U.S. Head of Motors & Generators Division, ABB
Mr. Fox is based in in Auburn Hills, MI. Mr. Henson is based in Fort Smith, AR.
As the world of manufacturing gradually returns to work, it will have to contend with unprecedented changes on multiple levels that will bring with them challenges both new and amplified. From linking back dislocated supply chains to ensuring efficiency
as employees work remotely, organizations are having to rethink their strategies to bring their businesses back to capacity.
In this new reality, companies will have to build resilient yet flexible manufacturing processes to enable them to improvise the fundamentals of their business, including shifting supply chains to new geographies without high risk or developing new product
mixes in a high-cost environment. While these challenges are actively discussed around boardrooms and on investor calls, so are concepts such as digitalization and automation that promise to help businesses thrive in the new industrial landscape.
Boost Efficiency with Automation
As businesses chalk out their new strategies, they are increasingly looking at ways to automate their operations to enhance productivity and efficiency and mitigate the challenges of a lack of skilled labor. With social distancing measures in place, at
least for the near term, automation, especially with robots, can help manufacturers continue their work while keeping their human employees safe.
The evolution of robotic automation has moved toward making robots more accessible to small and medium-sized companies. Smaller-sized collaborative robots can be easily programmed without specialized training, can be installed on existing production
lines, and are cheaper than larger industrial robots, making them ideal for small-scale and family-owned businesses. These robots can work alongside and with human operators and boost productivity and flexibility in processes such as palletizing and
small parts assembly. The absence of safety fences and large peripheral equipment also means that the investment needed for a robotic work cell can go from more than $200,000 to under $50,000.
While manufacturers scramble to adjust to changing demand patterns, they can rely on robotics to provide the necessary boost to production. Take, for instance, the task handed to Sweden’s Tiki Safety to produce hundreds of protective respiratory
masks to meet a surge in demand from all around the world. Tiki Safety’s existing production process was time- consuming, so the company invested in a pick-and- place robot that reduced a portion of the assembly process from six minutes to just
Digital Is the Next Normal
The digitalization of industrial processes and the adoption of Industry 4.0 concepts, including automation, advanced analytics, and digital connectivity, have been well underway in many organizations across the world. Digitalization enables companies
to capitalize on the benefits of digital tools, including sensors, cloud computing, and the internet, to add value to existing processes. In manufacturing, which is based on testing physical prototypes using a vast amount of seemingly disparate data,
digitalization can provide actionable insights that, in turn, help manufacturers find the best ways to manufacture new products and reduce the time it takes to bring them to market.
In today’s reality, digitalization has moved from being a long-term strategy to a much-needed remedy to increase the reliability and efficiency of the manufacturing process. Digital simulations of factory concepts, new products, and processes
can iron out issues virtually before manufacturers make any physical investment, while digital twin technology can provide clarity and transparency in increasingly complex manufacturing environments.
Digitalization does not have to be a time-consuming upgrade, nor does it always require significant investment. Even small, family-owned businesses can easily integrate digitalization technologies to boost productivity, reduce downtime, and eventually
save money by mitigating unplanned downtime.
Gaining transparency across the factory floor is another benefit that digitalization offers manufacturers. This is especially useful for companies developing new products, implementing new processes, or working with new technologies. Simple monitoring
solutions can add value to manufacturing by giving operators the ability to move from a time-based maintenance approach to a condition-based one, thereby reducing the chances of unscheduled stoppages.
Remote service has become a buzzword in the current manufacturing environment, as it provides quick and easy solutions to an otherwise time-consuming process. With monitoring services, companies can track the health of their assets and maximize their
performance with little interruption to operations. The monitoring is provided remotely, enabling a company to perform remedial actions and improve product health without stepping on-site. This ultimately boosts the efficiency and productivity of
the operation and leads to better savings.
Expand Reality for Better Results
As the rules of manufacturing change, maintaining business continuity and ensuring the smooth operation of assets are at the top of the agenda for companies across the world. Companies are increasingly turning to digital solutions to access their operations
and perform simplified, restorative maintenance to keep their processes running smoothly.
One way to address this issue is by using augmented reality (AR) technology to connect field personnel to remote professionals offering diagnostic and repair guidance. For example, ABB piloted an AR service at ArjoWiggins Creative Papers in
Scotland and Papierfabrik Adolf Jass in Germany. Headsets augmented with maintenance strategies, documentation, guidance, access to expertise, and other best practices were given to employees on-site. Field operatives streamed live video of asset
conditions at the site to remote experts, who, in turn, delivered live audio instruction, overlaid onto video to help them resolve issues quickly.
In the manufacturing world, adversity has often been the spark for innovation, and this time around, manufacturers will have to take bold decisions to ensure that they remain ahead of the game. Integrating the right digital and automation strategies is
the first step in this direction. ei