In a recent article from Bloomberg (“Focus On/Manufacturing” August 2015) the editors note that Intel and Texas Instruments have pretty much by now perfected the sci-fi form of manufacturing known as chip fabs – pristine, windowless clean rooms where some of the world’s most sophisticated chips are fabricated. They run 24 hours a day, knowing that these multi-billion dollar plants could be made obsolete in as little as five years or so, as new technologies and capabilities leapfrog the old.
Now these firms want to show the rest of the world how it’s done. The goal: an estimated (by IHS) $185 billion global market for the gear to automate industrial production. To do so, firms like Intel and others are prodding companies to bring the IoT (Internet of Things) – physical objects embedded with electronics that talk to one another – into factories.
According to Bloomberg, on the assembly line of tomorrow, “industrial robots now caged off to prevent them from accidentally injuring human workers will move about more freely. A machine outfitted with optical and motion sensors would be able to detect a hand that is delivering a tray of parts and adjust its movements so as not to inflict damage.”
Intel is also working to make technology for humans on the shop floor less error prone, including gloves that use chips to power a display on the wrist. If an assembly worker correctly completes a task, a large green check mark appears; if not, a red crosses flashes on the screen – a useful accessory first conceived by a group of ex-BWM employees that could become a useful accessory in auto and electronics plants.
While autonomous robots may be years away, Ethernet connections are now making a real entrance onto the floor, while Wi-Fi, per Bloomberg, has hardly made a dent, meaning most plants don’t have the communications infrastructure – yet – to support the Internet of Things. But it’s only matter of time.
This is partly by design however, it must be noted: Hackers cannot penetrate systems that aren’t connected to the outside, as the IoT, by definition, would. As the head of embedded processing for Texas Instruments wisely noted, “The best way to protect your system is to disconnect it from the rest of the world… while the very idea of IoT is to connect it to the rest of the world.”
To allay these concerns, TI is pushing the development of multiple networks, so that a wireless link that transmits information on the internal workings of a machine can’t be hijacked to take control of the machine itself. This is similar to the recent staged hack of a Jeep Cherokee that made news in July.
Still, as Intel is showing, advances in shop floor IoT have demonstrated benefits. At one unnamed Intel facility, sensors and software correctly identified that pumps used to manufacture silicon wafers were about to fail. The clue was found in irregularities in the pumps’ normal pattern of vibrations, detected by this sophisticated application of IoT.
For the near future, it’s thought that selling companies on the use of electronics for somewhat “discrete” functions, such as maintenance, will be a much easier sell than overhauling entire factories so every machine’s data can be parsed by computers. But some do see a day when “factories will be able to talk directly to warehouses, which will be in communication with stores, which will allow companies to tailor production more carefully to demand,” as the article’s editors note.
The grand goal of this smart manufacturing is to create the ultimate supply chain – and if technology and computers have proven anything to us, it’s that it is only a matter of when, not if.