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Private 5G brings automated quality inspections to the smart factory

A successful proof of concept using the latest robotic technologies to inspect train car production at Hitachi Rail’s Maryland facility shows the power of smart factories. It’s also a demonstration of a collaborative approach to modernizing manufacturing that benefits everyone – improving the flow of operations on the factory floor, keeping workers safe and bringing traceability.

Global Lead Strategic Partnerships Enterprise & Emerging Business

Managing Director, Slalom Element Labs

Vice President of R&D, Hitachi America and Chief Architect, Hitachi Astemo Americas

SPOT robotic dog
Image courtesy of Hitachi Americas

Global Lead Strategic Partnerships Enterprise & Emerging Business

Managing Director, Slalom Element Labs

Vice President of R&D, Hitachi America and Chief Architect, Hitachi Astemo Americas

Global Lead Strategic Partnerships Enterprise & Emerging Business

Contributor (+2)

Managing Director, Slalom Element Labs

Vice President of R&D, Hitachi America and Chief Architect, Hitachi Astemo Americas

As manufacturing facilities modernize – becoming “smart” – connectivity solutions like Ericsson’s private 5G networks can provide a platform for transformation. The low-latency, high-capacity and superior speed of 5G is facilitating technology like automation, a flexible manufacturing floor, and remote inspection procedures that improve safety by taking human workers out of harm’s way.

Smart inspections for a smart factory

Hitachi Rail’s factory in Hagerstown, Maryland is building new, modernized rail cars for municipal rail, with onsite day-to-day operations already underway. Recently, Hitachi America, Ericsson, and Slalom collaborated on a proof of concept to develop an automated quality inspection solution at the factory leveraging SPOT, a robotic dog from Boston Dynamics.

Inspections play a critical role in the factory’s operations. Quality inspections must be completed at each step of assembly before the process can proceed, indicating slower or backlogged activities can have a major impact on productivity. Additionally, the size of the rail cars makes inspecting each element by hand a safety issue. It’s quite a labor-intensive process.

Hitachi is interested in driving greater efficiencies within its plant operations. Utilizing autonomous capabilities of a robot with a camera, running through an AI-based computer vision model, this can free up workers and operators for other critical tasks. Additionally, manual inspections can be subjective, based on experience level of the operator and several other factors. Automating the process can provide a level of objectivity, consistency and traceability. The proof of concept successfully demonstrated that robot inspections can do all this – and more.


Safety and efficiency, powered by Private 5G

The innovative approach utilizes an Ericsson Private 5G network, the secure connectivity platform that is helping to accelerate digital transformation across a host of industries, including manufacturing.

Built upon this platform, Hitachi provided its industry cloud with integrated computer vision to seamlessly combine with other factory systems, including manufacturing execution systems (MES), all allowing the automated quality inspections to be seamlessly integrated into the flow of operations at the factory.

At the center of the solution is SPOT. Slalom was selected as a key subject matter expert for working with Spot, having used their own robot in their 5G innovation lab in New York City for the past few years. The robot not only allows factory workers to conduct detailed inspections remotely and safely, but it has several cameras that allow it to take images of imperfections, for example scratches, upload those over the private 5G network to an AI-computer vision application and back through the MES.

The robot has powerful sensor technology aboard, and a long battery life to facilitate detailed inspection. Its cameras are basically eyes – but can detect defects and blemishes with much more detail and objectivity than a human inspector. Additionally, SPOT can look at the alignment issues – like checking two side-by-side panels to insure there are no gaps. It not only makes the inspection process safer for factory workers – by standardizing and improving the quality of the inspections, it makes the cars safer for everyday riders as well.

Overall, the SPOT-led inspections are about digital technologies augmenting human capabilities on the factory floor, standardizing safety inspections so workers can focus their attention on other areas. SPOT is capturing large amounts of data from the inspections, which can then be characterized to enable more advanced analytics, making the process even more efficient and effective.

Smart factories are manufacturing’s future

And of course, inspections are just one initiative within the smart factory. There are many other workstreams that benefit from connectivity and real-time dataflows, including safety, maintenance, scheduling, and sustainability matters like measuring Co2 emissions.

It’s also an example of the value of smart manufacturing generally. The data gathered at Hagerstown will pay dividends once the trains are in operation – if there is a problem, for example, operators will be able to dig into the production data to identify the root cause faster. Everything feeds in a universal data layer that is continuously iterating, improving not only the flow of work at the factory but the end products themselves.

Smart factories are more than a buzzword – they’re a necessity for firms looking to keep pace with increasing demand, a volatile labor market and disrupted supply chains.

According to Gartner, 80 percent of CEOs in the manufacturing industry are increasing investments in digital technologies, led by AI, IoT, and data and analytics. The bottom line is: factories that aren’t equipped with the right tools and software to protect production from potential disruptions are just not viable. 

Manufacturers see promise in smart factories because they can use data and analytics to gain insights, bettering their efficiencies and ultimately increasing productivity while augmenting and supporting human workers with technology. And 5G private networks can provide the security, power and reliability to make that happen.

Paving the way for a safer, more efficient factory

Hitachi envisions the Hagerstown factory to be a flagship for the Hitachi brand, showcasing various applications powered by new technologies used globally.. Connectivity is vital to not only the inspection but the factory overall.

The relationship between Ericsson and Hitachi is well-established and long standing. The two companies share a campus in Santa Clara, California and have collaborated on a 5G innovation lab – supported by Ericsson’s private network. Ericsson has also run several private 5G development projects with Hitachi involving 5G robotics, 5G with cloud edge and computer vision.

Slalom and Ericsson have a long-standing relationship as well, partnering together to launch a 5G innovation lab in New York City. Slalom, through its Element Lab212 seeks to inspire and innovate with their customers through the exploration of emerging technologies – robotics, digital humans, AR, Generative AI and private 5G.

The collaborative nature of this pilot is critical. Over the past three years, all the companies involved have worked together, enabling them to go from idea to concept to working prototype within a few days rather than weeks – and the highly-specialized knowledge each partner brings to the table would be impossible for one company to deploy in a purely vertical way. Such co-creation is critical to the success of smart factories in general. It’s how we’ll create the factories of the future, bringing legacy manufacturing solutions into the modern era.

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