Smart Manufacturing: Another Industrial Revolution in the Making

Connected assembly lines, smart components and integrated production management systems might launch a new era of medtech manufacturing.

Thomas Klein

The workpiece begins its journey through the factory of the future after it is furnished with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag. The chip contains a blueprint of the finished product and wirelessly transmits instructions to the production machines on how to process the component, which materials to use and how to label it. Details of the manufacturing process are stored on the RFID chip, which makes it easier to maintain the component or identify it in case of a recall. It might even be possible that the components autonomously monitor their condition and report when they need to be replaced.

This brave new world of manufacturing has been given many names, among them: “Industrial Internet,” “Smart Manufacturing” and “Industry 4.0.” Its apologists promise nothing less than the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And at the core of the revolution is, unsurprisingly, digitalization. The so-called Internet of Things— where all kinds of everyday objects are connected—will help to bridge the gap between the digital and physical world.

“The idea is to make manufacturing feasible again in postindustrial countries by building an extremely agile and flexible production line, which is not based on manpower, but on highly intelligent and highly integrated production,” explains Thorsten Henkel, division director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Secure Information Technology in Darmstadt (Germany).

 “The result will be a manufacturing environment where unique and customized products can be manufactured in competitive conditions.” Since the beginning of industrialization, manufacturers have sought economies of scale and the reduction of labor costs. These two factors could become almost meaning- less, however, when intelligent workpieces and machines—dubbed cyberphysical systems—are tasked with determining how to manufacture a product.

It will likely be at least 15 years before this type of scenario in which machines independently operate production becomes a reality, according to Detlef Zühlke, head of the department of innovative factory systems at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) in Kaiserslautern (Germany). “However, it would be disastrous if a company thinks that there is no need to occupy itself with that [scenario] because it’s still far away,” he says. “Companies should already start to ask them- selves the question: What does this mean for my production, what does this mean for my products?”

Early Adopters at Agfa Healthcare
While the vision of a fully integrated production line may be a few years or even a decade away, instances of connected manufacturing have already emerged. The medical division of the Belgian-German imaging technology group Agfa Gevaert, for example, is an early adopter of the new manufacturing techniques. Agfa’s medical business sells radiology imaging systems in addition to software for hospital management and image processing. The company produces the devices in low- volume production runs, in part tailored to customer specifications.

At its production site in the German region of Peißenberg, Agfa HealthCare not only assembles the finished imaging systems, it also manufactures the housings of the devices. A fully automated machine die-cuts, laser-cuts and bends metal with tools to create the housings—24 hours per day, seven days per week. 

“At our company, nobody needs to stand next to the machine to monitor it. You can [monitor] it from another floor
or soon you might even watch it with your smartphone from the bathing lake,” says Herbert Klein, site manager of the plant in Peißenberg. “For example, if a malfunction occurs during the weekend, the machine sends via mobile technology a signal: ‘Help me, a sheet metal plate has snagged.’ The employee can then come to the company and, after half-an-hour, it works again.”

Klein says that Agfa HealthCare Peißenberg is currently working on a tablet app that would enhance this possibility of remotely controlling and changing the machine’s manufacturing programs. The operator can already switch the machines on and off from outside the plant. But in the future, Klein wants to enable them to remotely push production sequences into the waiting loop if priorities change with new information. For Klein, this will not only make the production more flexible, but also his employees more content.

Technological Drivers
Despite the futuristic potential of connected manufacturing, the technologies driving this revolution in the making are not exactly revolutionary, however. The tiny enabling sensors and microprocessors, as well as the ability to connect devices via the Internet, have been around for years. However, the necessary components have become more powerful over time and prices have plummeted because of their large-scale deployment in smartphones and tablets. “Also, a tiny revolution was the change from the IPV4 to IPV6 Internet protocol, which made it possible to give a unique digital identity to every single component,” Henkel notes.

For him, however, the main driver of more widespread connected manufacturing is the increasing support from politicians who want to bring manufacturing back to the West from low-wage countries and the market pull from companies seeking for a way to manage the increasing complexity of their production.

Especially in the medical technology sector, ever-shorter product cycles and a growing demand for more product variants in small lot sizes increase the need for flexible and reactive manufacturing systems. At the same time, prices and quality of products needs to stay on the same level. “The competitive advantage in the future will be the mastery of complexity and complex technologies together with the necessary know-how,” according to Klaus Bauer, head of system-development-based technologies at the machine building company Trumpf in the 2013 Fraunhofer study, “Manufacturing Activities of the Future – Industry.”

Current and Future Applications
New IT systems could make it possible to not only connect the production machines horizontally on the shop floor, but also vertically, when they integrate ordering, design, manufacturing and shipment into a single, seamless process. When the buyer customizes a product online or in cooperation with the salesperson, for instance, the system could automatically generate the blueprint and technical specifications in a format that also could be read by the manufacturing machines. The ability to produce a broad range of product variants without additional planning and set-up will reduce the need to have these items in stock, which, in turn, reduces warehousing costs. Machines could even communicate directly with their counter- parts at the subcontractor’s plants to order the needed supplies.

These types of technologies will also make it easier to set up manufacturing plants for new product lines. According to Zühlke of DFKI, getting the automation technology ready to produce a mobile phone, for example, often requires more time than the life cycle of the device. “The planning of manufacturing plants is very complex. Someone needs
to make a cable plan, determine which cables are pulled to where from where, in what thickness and over which terminals. This costs time,” he explains.

Zühlke envisions a future that relies on a plug-and-play approach for manufacturing technology with standardized interfaces. “Today, you can connect exchange printers within seconds because of standard USB interfaces and software. In the future, this could be the same for manufacturing components.” He adds that agreeing on these standards will be one of the main prerequisites for the new manufacturing world.

Another area in which smarter systems will increase efficiency is maintenance. Based on experience, companies typically predict when components need to be replaced before they break or stop working. “The downside of this approach is that companies [replace] components they think will break in the near future, but which might be good for another 1000 working hours,” explains Henkel. Proactive maintenance, he says, would be much more efficient. “If each component has its own intelligence and sensors, it could transmit information about its actual condition. And in the future, you might be able to accurately predict that the part will break at 3 pm the next day, and the company could have it replaced by 2:55.”

In order to demonstrate how smart systems might be able to reduce waste, Henkel gives the example of cylinder heads. To produce them, car manufacturers drill holes in metal plates and then press sleeves through the holes. The sleeves are cut with a CNC machine; the holes are made with a drill. “The longer the drill is used, the smaller becomes the drill and the smaller become the holes. The more the CNC milling machine wears out, the bigger the sleeves become. At some point, the sleeves no longer fit in the holes, meaning waste,” he explains. “In the future, the machines can communicate: I produce holes in exactly this quality, the cutter can answer that it produces sleeves in exactly this size. By matching the fitting parts, they can reduce waste.”

The German company Wittenstein which produces special gears for medical products, considers itself to be a pioneer
of connected manufacturing. For its plant in Felbach, the company plans to connect the air conditioner with the manufacturing plant. The company wants to use the waste heat in its centrally located production plant to supply neighboring households with warm water. In order to do that, the company will start temperature-intensive production steps at times when many neighbors need warm water.
The company also aims to make its internal logistics more efficient with the help of smart systems. Until the beginning of this year, an employee drove an electronic car through the shop floor to collect finished components and supply the workstations with material. Because he didn’t know which products were ready and which machines or employees needed supply, his route was often random, ultimately wasting time. Now, a computer program gathers data from the worksta- tions and the central production planning system, then provides the employee with the optimal route via a tablet PC.

A Major Challenge
Without a doubt, the idea of connected manufacturing shows great promise. However, until the vision can become reality, there are still many challenges to overcome. One of the most significant obstacles
to overcome is to protect these connected systems from security breaches. To live up to their potential, smart manufacturing plants of the future will not only be connected to machines within the company, but also will have a number of interfaces to IT systems of customers, suppliers or logistics companies. Every one of these is a potential gateway for hackers, viruses or worms.

Compromised IT systems can have severe consequences for manufacturers, from industrial espionage to the shut-down of the whole production process. Therefore, it is essential that IT security is considered in the architecture of smart factories from the outset.

Conclusion
These futuristic manufacturing technologies demonstrate great promise for the medical device sector, in particular, with its high degree of customization and increasing need for flexibility. Moreover, the share of industrial production of gross domestic product has been declining for decades in developed countries. Sophis- ticated, connected, and smarter manufacturing technologies hold the potential to reverse this trend, however, and bring manufacturing back to the West.

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