Getting smarter with manufacturing

Current statistics from the Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) have indicated that UK manufacturers have maintained a broadly positive outlook despite some recent fluctuations in the rate of sector expansion.  The Purchasing Managers’ Index for May crept up to 54.4 in the month, from the 17-month low of 53.9 in April.

Such optimism could be attributed in part to the growing influence Smart Manufacturing technologies are having on critical areas such as operational efficiency, flexible manufacturing, energy consumption, productivity and global competitiveness.

In the latest of our innovation battle blogs, we take a look at some of the battles taking place as businesses look to capitalise on these technologies, alongside some of the practical applications they are having across the manufacturing sector.

The opportunities presented by Smart Manufacturing

The recommendations of the government’s ‘Made Smarter Review’ are currently being closely examined to see how the wide scale adoption of digital technologies can be practically implemented across our industrial base.  But for many companies the government is already pushing at an open door when it comes to a willingness to embrace Smart Manufacturing and seize the benefits it can deliver.

Recent research from Barclays Corporate Banking highlights that 83% of UK manufacturers are confident that Britain can compete in the international marketplace, and 43% attribute this confidence to the use of smart technologies such as machine learning, intelligent sensors and Big Data analytics to help boost productivity.

There’s no denying some of the tools that merge the physical and digital worlds including the digital twin, virtual and mixed reality, 3D printing, cloud computing, robotics and artificial intelligence may, to some, still have the feel of science fiction about them. In reality, such Smart Manufacturing techniques are already being utilised by manufacturers looking to get a head start on the competition.

Through the looking glass

Looking more closely at mixed reality including virtual reality; Google and Microsoft are charging ahead with Google Glass Enterprise and HoloLens respectively. While you’d be forgiven for thinking these technologies are most recognisable within a consumer setting, they are also making significant strides within an industrial setting, including manufacturing.

Innovations such as Google Glass Enterprise are helping to transform the working experience within a manufacturing environment by applying the benefits of wearable tech to an industrial scenario. Glass 2.0, introduced in 2017, allows workers via an optical head-mounted set designed in the shape of sunglasses to rapidly access information in a smartphone-like, hands-free format, which can improve worked productivity.

For example, agricultural company AGCO uses Google Glass at every stage of the production line from initial design right through to customisation and on to final product inspections. Here, the company is able to document hands-free, real-time information which is shared with cross functional teams in order to further enhance the company’s productivity.

Likewise, Microsoft’s HoloLens is a self-contained, holographic computer, enabling workers using the headset to engage with digital content and interact with holograms that can optimise the benefits of combining virtual reality and real work in an industrial workplace.  It offers an ability to go beyond the confines of a computer screen and enables employees to place and use the information required to perform their tasks as they wish.

The collaboration between Volvo and Microsoft sees HoloLens used within the company’s car selection and customisation. The car giant sees real benefit for the mixed reality experience, stating:

“It will allow people to experience the technology in our cars in a more tangible way. We imagine a future where people will be able to better understand how our safety innovations can help avoid accidents, how our advanced powertrains are optimised to support people in different driving conditions, and how our new connected services can make life easier and save time. HoloLens could also one-day enable people to configure a car and see changes of colour, trim or wheel design in the most realistic way possible.”

Building greater intelligence, artificially

When examining other technologies which are helping advance manufacturing production lines, artificial intelligence (AI) is also rapidly increasing in popularity across the sector.

Many industry leaders believe the potential for AI is huge, with predictions already being made that the technology will be used across almost every industry. However, for most it is the development of driverless cars which is really charging the way for AI.

While many will be keeping an eye on Tesla, manufacturing is also embracing AI. Recently Foxxconn – a leading Chinese component manufacturer which includes Apple among its customer base – announced it was exploring how artificial intelligence and robotics production is to be woven into its industrial supply chain.  The company says that its AI strategy includes the use of smart robots to replace human jobs that are “dangerous and boring”.

Looking at other applications across the sector, AI is increasingly being used by manufacturing businesses in the training and development of its staff. With the ongoing skills shortage causing manufacturers to look at ways of upskilling employees; immersive reality, using AI, is proving a valuable tool. The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in Sheffield recently hosted a hands-on AI workshop using IBM Watson as part of its drive to lead the way on AI-powered manufacturing, helping to solve a number of real-life industry problems.

Ultimately, Smart Manufacturing in all its guises is designed to supplement and not replace human intelligence. It will be the deployment of an innovative vision and the use of the wide range of intelligence-led tools and techniques that are now available, that will begin to set manufacturers apart in an intensely competitive business environment locally, nationally and internationally.

At the MPA Group we understand the challenges faced by the manufacturing sector as organisations look to begin their Smart Manufacturing journey.  Our industry experts can help identify where appropriate research and development activities can be rewarded in the form government funding schemes allowing clients to re-invest into their businesses.