Step inside the future factory

Ever since the industrial revolution and resulting shift to new manufacturing processes, manufacturers have evolved their industrial production systems to increase productivity, gain efficiencies and grow profits.

Future factory

Head of the Ericsson Research branch in Italy

Head of the Ericsson Research branch in Italy

In the twentieth century mass production was born, starting in the automotive industry with Ford. Assembly-line production became a paradigm for mass production and had far-reaching impacts on society. In fact, what is called “Fordism” in social science, describes an economic and social system based on industrialized, standardized mass production and mass consumption. The key concept is the manufacturing of standardized products in huge volumes, using special-purpose machinery and, at that time, unskilled labor. Although Fordism was a method used to improve productivity in the automotive industry, the principle has been applied to any kind of manufacturing process.

In recent decades, there has been an increasing need for customization to allow manufacturers to differentiate from competitors and broaden their product offerings. In a way, the product variety stimulates the consumer market, provided that manufacturing costs are kept low enough to have sustainable margins. The final step of the trend is “personalized production”. Based on the Industry 4.0 paradigm and leveraging on new technologies across the complete value chain from suppliers to customers, it is possible to significantly increase the flexibility of the production line and shorten production lead times. This brings to a more affordable and scalable customization.

The trend for “personal” product customization is growing, along with a preference for online purchasing. Therefore, current processes need to be adapted to be more flexible and customizable, while still protecting initial investments in the production line.

Smart manufacturing for factory automation

The future factory represents the way in which manufacturers, of any industrial sector, plan to enhance their production processes and plants. It’s a place where people, machines and products communicate and interact autonomously through an industry-grade cellular network. This network allows the conveyance of data from the production line to the cloud, transforms this data into useful information, and enables flexible interactions among all elements of the value chain.
The structure of the future factory will be extremely flexible with:

  1. Multidirectional layout, enabled by wireless robotic trolleys, called AGVs (automated guided vehicles). AGVs are able to 'understand' the surrounding environment and to ensure the shuttling of the various components among the production island in the plant. AGVs will replace fixed conveyors. Such systems enable quick changes in the assembly layout.
  2. Modular line setup, meaning interchangeable line modules and production machinery that can be easily reconfigured. It is a kind of modular conveyor which is built on the factory floor instead of in a pit, giving workers greater flexibility in changing the length of the line and in moving the line-side equipment.
  3. Sustainable production, by adopting machine and processes having a more efficient utilization of energy and materials.

The IoT connected factory

The digitization of factory operations enabled by IoT technologies is a cornerstone of the future factory. Digital applications will be able to monitor and control all tools of the production line, collecting data from thousands of sensors to create a digital image of the product, usually referred to as a “digital shadow.” Once a digital shadow has been created for a physical product and bears its specific DNA, it is possible to manufacture that product more efficiently and with a higher degree of quality in the digitized production facility. In this way, it is possible to optimize the manufacturing process, detect quality issues early to prevent defects at the end of the production line, and make continuous improvements. It is also possible to carry out predictive and preventive maintenance.

The combination of wireless sensors and industrial-grade communication networks, such as 4G and 5G, plays a key role in this context, by enabling data collection from shop-floor level (production lines) and data transfer to cloud systems for continuous monitoring and control.

Virtual controllers that combine control, data logging and alarms into a cloud platform also help the process of digitization and save costs, panel space and maintenance activities compared to traditional systems. They can control a wide variety of production tools and are also a solution for remotely located machines and portable systems that can run standalone.

Industrial networking creates smarter robots

High-speed communication networks, wireless infrastructure and cloud computing technologies make it possible to enrich robotized plants with new relevant capabilities, while reducing costs through cloud technologies. As a result, it is possible to create smarter robots with “brains” (virtual controllers) in the cloud. The “brain” consists of a knowledge base, program path, models, communication support and so on, effectively transferring the intelligence of the controller into a remote virtual controller. This approach offers many benefits, including:

  • on-premises cloud capability that can reside alongside legacy critical infrastructure, allowing for an evolution of legacy services and a platform for new services
  • lower operating expenses, a result of maximizing the performance and capacity of a virtualization platform, which provides high reliability and performance
  • fault tolerance to single and multiple software and hardware faults, with minimal loss of service
  • comprehensive fault management, isolation, and recovery
  • high scalability and performance.

At the outset, dedicated 4G systems are going to be used to provide cloud robotics with the necessary connectivity, but 5G is the target technology truly capable of delivering the performance needed to support the applications of the future.

Taking the next steps

robot arm

In Italy, Ericsson is cooperating with Comau, a world leader in advanced industrial automation, and Telecom Italia (TIM), to experiment the future factory in a realistic industrial context. The project involves the development of a proof-of-concept, hosted in the Comau plant in Turin, based on industrial robots connected via a dedicated cellular network and controlled in the cloud.

proof of concept

In the proof-of-concept, a manipulator robot picks an object and places it in front of second robot which emulates a soldering action with a welding gun. The final object is then placed by the manipulator on a conveyor and sent to the next production station. Industry-grade cellular connectivity has been activated by Ericsson and TIM, in the experiment area, to “un-plug” robots and move coordination of the entire proof-of-concept from a local station PLC (programmable logic controller) to a cloud platform, hosted on Comau premises, where control functionalities can run, as virtual machines, on a general-purpose hardware.

At Mobile World Congress 2018, Ericsson is demonstrating the future factory concept in conjunction with Comau – be sure to come visit us and see the demo for yourself in Hall 2 in Barcelona, and follow all the action live online.

Learn more

Find out more about industrial automation enabled by robotics, machine intelligence and 5G in our latest Ericsson Technology Review article.

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