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Six smart factory developments likely in 2020

Smart factory owners are turning to advanced technology like artificial intelligence and big data. (Image: Shutterstock)

Schneider Electric recently debuted factory upgrades that it claims make its Lexington, KY, factory the first smart factory in the United States. 

The factory uses technology like augmented reality to give workers live operational data about machines on the floor. And the change resulted in significant improvements in efficiency: a 90% reduction of paperwork and a 20% reduction in the mean repair time.

Smart factory owners looking to make the next leap forward in the digital industrial revolution are turning to advanced technology like artificial intelligence and big data. Here are six smart factory developments we’re likely to see within the next year.

1. “Cobots” will become common

Collaborative robots — sometimes called cobots — will work alongside factory employees to make the manufacturing process more efficient. Robotic installation in the U.S. has reached new heights as a tight labor market has encouraged manufacturers to make processes more efficient without hiring new employees.

Fully autonomous factories — often called lights-out factories — require construction from the ground up for full automation and are still impractical with current technology. Collaborative robots are comparatively much easier to integrate into a factory. These robots’ design allows them to work alongside human workers safely and without much need for supervision.

Factories already have put these robots to good use. In one example, a collaborative robot helped beat double-digit rejection rates due to faulty assembly. During the day, it worked alongside human workers as a sort of quality assurance specialist. At night, the robot continued to work in a lights-out mode — for the most part, entirely on its own.

2. Internet of Things devices

In the smart factory, data is a manufacturer’s most valuable asset.

And Internet of Things (or IoT) devices, by providing that data, make up the building blocks of smart factories. When installed in number, these sensors form networks that can report minute-to-minute updates on factory floor conditions. Information like machine timing, environmental conditions and stock levels are all examples of the data IoT devices can collect and instantly report to factory managers.

This data can then help improve factory processes — detecting improperly timed machines or visualizing bottlenecks that slow down the manufacturing process.

3. Fully wireless factories

With current technology, many of the IoT sensors need wires to run. Cellular networks aren’t high enough to support real-time data transfer on minute-to-minute updates on factory floor conditions. And Wi-Fi requires physical access points or hotspots that make it just about as practical as wired connections. As a result, the IoT sensors are harder to move, more costly to install and generally less flexible in their use.

In smart factories of the future, however, advanced technology will allow these sensors to be fully wireless.

5G, the next phase in cellular network technology, will deliver:

  • Speeds that are up to 100 times faster than 4G.
  • Latency of less than one-tenth of a millisecond.
  • Movable, easily repurposed sensors that can collect data from one part of the factory one day and a completely different part the next.

4. Big data analysis

All the data IoT devices collect will be useless without proper analysis. For companies that manage their business by metrics, big data analysis — special techniques used to evaluate massive data sets — is the obvious next step. Newer production machines generate a lot of data, but the sheer size of the data sets meant a lot of information was going underused or getting discarded.

Big data analysis makes it possible to extract patterns from this data that improve factory processes.

5. AI-driven factories and design

Artificial intelligence will make factories more efficient and help manufacturers gather insights from the data their sensors collect. Many big data platforms already use AI to analyze data sets. And some collaborative robots are using AI to navigate the factory floor without relying on a preset path.

AI may soon be involved in every step of the manufacturing process — including product design. Design engineers may soon be using AI-powered computer-aided manufacturing systems to assist in the product design process. The designer can build a product, and the computer will generate a tool path for it. The design specifications then go directly to the factory, where the system decides which machine or machines are best suited to manufacture the part.

6. Smart also may mean sustainable

Smart manufacturing, with its ability to make processes more efficient and less wasteful, naturally supports sustainability.

Social respectability and sustainability are big topics — both outside of and within the manufacturing sector. According to the EPA, 66% of manufacturers believe sustainability is essential to remain competitive in the marketplace. As smart manufacturing makes sustainability easier than ever before, more manufacturers may make going green a top priority.

For some manufacturers, sustainability may mean adopting a “lean philosophy” — cutting out waste where possible and making the whole factory highly efficient. Others may go further and take advantage of IoT connectivity to create green or fully paperless factories.

The future of smart factories

Artificial intelligence, IoT devices and big data are changing how factories work. For manufacturers of the future, data will be their most valuable asset. 

Soon it will be more and more common for factories to be smart — collecting and using huge amounts of data to build better processes and make manufacturing more efficient.

Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is a technology journalist and writer interested in manufacturing and the supply chain. Her work has been published on Thomas Insights, Industrial Machinery Digest, American Machinist and