The Business Times' Column | Due Diligence: Abhijit Gupta | Science Fiction on the Factory Floor is More Real than You Think. How Good is the Tech?

Abhijit S GUPTA | 17 Oct 2022

*This column was first published on *The Business Times

IMAGINE walking into a factory and being greeted by a line of robotic arms, each working on wrapping and bundling dresses into a carton. You move on and see a line of drones with scanners, busy conducting a quick inventory count in the warehouse. Finally, you see an enormous digital dashboard displaying in real-time the number of units produced in the past hour.

Sounds like science fiction, but the reality of advanced manufacturing today comes quite close. This is what Industry 4.0 or smart manufacturing is all about, and that is estimated to bring in about a significant US$300 billion worth of total annual spending on manufacturing tech next year, according to PwC’s Industry 4.0: Building the Digital Enterprise report.

There have been consequential disruptions in the manufacturing space which make for exciting investments. Where previously, machinery in factories operated with pre-programmed logic, today’s machines and devices are sensing and communicative. Where data is downloaded in real time and can be visualised. Where technology is making possible the mass rollout of customised products when only standard products could be output at scale before. And when a machine breaks down, downtime is much reduced by software and Internet of Things (IOT) protocols that allow for predictive maintenance.

How should these innovations be assessed? In this article, we will be deep diving into four key areas which are already transforming manufacturing: industrial IOT and connectivity, robotics and automation, wearables, and operations management software and artificial intelligence (AI).

It’s connected, but does it work?

IOT describes physical objects with sensors, processing ability, software, and other technologies that connect and exchange data with other devices and systems over the Internet or other communication networks.

Using IOT, one can monitor multiple devices (machines, smart lighting, battery status, power-grid connection, etc), generate analytical insights on data hosted on a cloud-based energy management platform to undertake energy saving measures. For instance, Johnson & Johnson’s Bangkok facility used IOT-enabled energy management to reduce electricity consumption by 23 per cent.

New sensor technologies such as stereo cameras and vibration sensors are used together with IOT communications protocols to better inform decision-making in real time, which result in higher yields, longer run times, better recovery, and fewer process disturbances. Incorporation of sensors can also predict and prevent critical failures in manufacturing settings.

But synchronising data transmission is much easier said than done. Since sensors and actuators from various manufacturers are equipped with different networking technologies, there is potential for delays and variations in data gathering, inference and control. Consequently, these may give rise to misunderstandings and errors which would affect the efficacy of the products. Hence, the transmit time interval (known as latency) is one technical metric we investigate.

Integration across various technology stacks on the shop floor is a challenging task, and making this simpler is critical to a connected factory going live. We also look at the way a company integrates the various devices and assess if it’s done in the simplest and most energy efficient way possible.

Good bot, bad bot

With AI, smart sensors, and improved motors, robots have evolved to become more autonomous, flexible, and cooperative. Thus, robots have been increasingly used to replace dangerous, specified, and repetitive human labour on the factory floor.

Three key robot types include automated guided vehicles (AGV) and autonomous mobile robots (AMR), drones, and 3D printing devices.

AGVs and AMRs are used for cleaning, picking, packing, and transportation of raw materials directly to the production line.

Drones are typically useful for inspection and inventory checking purposes.

3D printing enables all kinds of personalised objects to be manufactured without expensive moulds and tools, giving factories the flexibility to adapt to the needs of an increasingly demanding and unpredictable market.

Looking at robotics and automation, we compare task-level metrics including time to completion, percentage of assemblies correctly completed, and amount of slack time. Another key metric is robustness, where we test if an operation’s performance can tolerate stressful environmental conditions (for example, bad lighting conditions if visual sensors are used). Overall, we also look for the total cost of ownership (TCO) for a customer versus human labour, factoring in other considerations like the quality and speed improvements that a robot could bring at the same time.

Helping humans work with machines

Wearable technologies are devices that alter or augment worker sensory perceptions. In the area of smart manufacturing, high-speed field networks (for example, 5G, wide area networks) enable wearables to find more applications by interacting with a wider range of sensor data.

Wearables are used to aid workers in executing specific tasks, and can even be used to measure health parameters for work in dangerous environments. Examples of wearables include augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and exoskeleton wearables.

AR combines the real-life and computer-generated environments and makes it possible to have specialised staff provide support remotely.

VR is a computer-generated environment with scenes and objects that appear real. VR can also be used in industrial training where workers can be trained in using various complex machines and systems in an immersive environment, improving training effectiveness.

Exoskeletons are wearable electromechanical devices that enhance the physical performance of the wearer. These are effective in reducing fatigue and preventing injuries during lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling, and overhead tasks.

With wearables, we typically try to understand device usage and answer whether the virtual or augmented shop floor experience is gaining on-ground adoption by the workers, which in turn would be tied to how smooth the experience is while using the wearable, making it user-friendly and value-adding to use.

Operations management goes online

While manufacturing software has been around for a while, it has seen a new resurgence with the rise of the cloud, and the wave of data and application programming interfaces (APIs) making the experience more connected and real-time than ever.

What matters here is how easy it is to set up and go live compared to more “legacy” solutions, on-ground usage by customers, and benchmarking versus competing products.

In addition, we attempt to understand how the software could be utilised to directly or indirectly bring about improvements in Overall Equipment Effectiveness, which refers to Availability x Performance x Quality Rate. Availability describes the percentage of scheduled time that the operation is available to operate, performance is the speed at which the work centre/plant runs as a percentage of its designed speed, and quality is the percentage of total units started that end up as functional products or “good” units.

The ghost in the machine is the wind in its sails

Amid the pandemic, multiple unicorns in the manufacturing sector have emerged, such as Spark Cognition, Augury, Agile Robots, Zetwerk, and Cognite. The largest manufacturers in the world have also cashed in alongside institutional investors, including Foxconn into Agile Robots, Boeing into Spark Cognition, Qualcomm Ventures into Augury, and Aramco into Cognite. At Vertex Ventures South-east Asia and India, we have looked into and invested in several fast-growing changemakers in the manufacturing ecosystem such as Manuva in Indonesia, and and Flutura in India.

Globally, various technical applications of manufacturing technologies are proliferating, led by startups building across spaces. Tracxn pegs the total funding in manufacturing tech sub-sectors globally as at November 2021 as follows:

Manufacturing has to get smart to keep up with ever accelerating customer and consumer demand. The question is: which companies make the smart investments?

Thanks for reading, watch out for our next Column coming out third Monday of each month on the The Business Times.

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