Big data and automation represent two very important tools that should help us create a brand-new type of manufacturing that doesn't require as much constant human attention and effort. It should, at the same time, vastly improve the safety and accuracy ...

Big Data, Automation and the Future of Manufacturing

Nathan Sykes | Finding an Outlet

The manufacturing industry touches a lot of lives, even if we don't often think about it. A nation is a network of supply chains, manufacturers, fabricators and delivery companies — and all of it functions to fulfill wants and meet needs.

Big data and automation represent two very important tools that should help us create a brand-new type of manufacturing that doesn't require as much constant human attention and effort. It should, at the same time, vastly improve the safety and accuracy of some of our largest and our most delicate manufacturing processes. Let's take a look at these tools and some of the changes they can be expected to bring.


Real Applications for Big Data in Manufacturing

Even the phrase "big data" sounds intimidating, but all it really comes down to is gathering information about what you're doing. As you can probably imagine, getting at some of that data requires a hardware update, a software update and sometimes both. However, the benefits of finding out everything you can about the many interlocking pieces of your manufacturing operation are worth it.

Energy use is one place where it's relatively easy for companies to a look at actionable operational data. Production equipment, coolant pumps, climate control and conveyors all consume variable amounts of electricity and effort, and they operate at variable levels of productivity compared with their day-one potential. In other words, things wear out. When they do, they might be forcing multiple systems within your facility, supply chain or operation to work harder — and more expensively — than they need to.

Data gets you halfway there. With any luck, the right talent will get you the rest of the way. Just remember that IBM expects demand for data professionals to rise by nearly one-third in the next couple of years. There's plenty of good reasons why, when even a single factory can reduce its waste by up to 20 percent just by using data to make itself more efficient.

There are other game-changing benefits of big data in manufacturing, too. Some of them involve the more vulnerable products we rely on every day. These include things like foods, beverages, over-the-counter and prescription medications, general first-aid products, liquor, medical products and devices, and more. For these or any other products that human beings rely on every day, quality and reliability are non-negotiable.

There are many examples, but one case study involved a biopharmaceutical company using big data to find out how to greatly reduce yield variability. Medicine relies on the precise balancing of ingredient proportions, so eliminating variables whenever possible is a huge advantage here. The company boosted its profits, but it also cut down on the number of defects and errors in its manufacturing processes that resulted in unsalable or unfit products.

Reducing waste and energy use, becoming better stewards of resources and operating on a leaner production timeline are all key parts of why big data is a big deal in manufacturing. It's really just half of the puzzle, though. It's big data along with automation and robotics technologies that are finally going to help us, with any luck, solve some of manufacturing's oldest problems and help the world manage the flow of important products and resources in a more sensible way.


Automation and Robotics in Manufacturing

There's research published as recently as 2015 that indicates up to 64 percent of the world's current workforce could be automated with technology already available to us. Another way to see this would be 478 billion billable hours, or $2.7 trillion in labor costs.

The coming importance of automation in manufacturing is almost too amazing to describe briefly. Consider the benefits in medicine and food and beverage manufacturing, for a start. Between the remarkable promise of synthetic meats to newly broken ground in pharmaceutical research, it's clear the manufacturing world would stand to benefit from automation and the higher degree of precision it brings.

There are already software-based as well as more mechanical solutions for manufacturing concerns. Expect them to reduce inefficiency in some of these key areas:

  • Software automation can help multiple production locations keep track of and automatically reorder critical tools and resources just in time for them to be needed. Some data-driven software services for lean manufacturers even help with future sales forecasting so you can make more strategic purchasing decisions.

  • Automation helps software and hardware work more elegantly together. One example involves shipment tracking. RFID and barcodes are increasingly being scanned automatically, and the right software automation can deliver instant notifications to other supply chain partners or even to the end-user at various points along the product's journey.

Perishable goods are increasingly employing wireless thermometers and other sensing equipment to take this concept one step further. Until now, many time-sensitive products had to be inspected closely by human hands and trained eyes. Thankfully, increasingly more sophisticated sensing equipment is raising the bar for safety and accuracy here. In one government-cited example, defective eggs were easily discovered and discarded by delicate sensors and a relatively intelligent computer program.

Let's get away from industrial-scale automation for a moment, though. There's an intermediate step before that, and it's called the use of cobots. In 2015, cobots already represented 4 percent of all industrial robot sales. They're clearly catching on, and it's probably because they aid humans with repetitive or cumbersome handling tasks, including picking and packing orders, moving products around, performing heavy assembly and much more. Cobots will probably continue to influence workflows throughout manufacturing industries.

Maybe the ideal end result of each of these innovations looks like the robot-driven "lights out" factories that can now operate for months with very little human interaction. That's a lot of savings in costs — as well as recovered human potential.


About Nathan Sykes
Nathan Sykes like to write online about the future of business and technology. To stay up to date with his latest posts, check out his IT and business blog.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of ManufacturingTomorrow

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