While the basics of Industry 4.0 may sound futuristic, it won’t be long before we see even more sweeping changes in manufacturing. When new technologies arrive on the scene, it can be hard to imagine how they will affect the world as we know it. Here’s a look at some of the most exciting new technologies along with “where to start” recommendations because knowing what’s coming can help you to “future proof” your technology investments.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is helping to streamline processes in both front and back office operations, but it can also help with aspects of manufacturing, continuous improvement and shop floor scheduling.

In production, AI may assist current optimization logic by analyzing production time tracking data along with production down time tracking data with recommendations for sequencing jobs to maximize labor and machine utilization while continuing to reduce setup or clean-up time. Or help with recommendations to improved scheduling of parts based on raw material(s) and other external parameters, as sometimes happens in metal fabrication and plastics manufacturing. Using AI automates the optimization of the scheduling process while freeing up humans to focus on other supply chain issues.

Voice Control and Contextual Speech Recognition

In production situations, using a keyboard or mouse to enter data or control equipment is inefficient. Using bar codes to report labor is no better since it can still be cumbersome. Touch screens can greatly improve ease-of-use and subsequently labor productivity if, and only if, it is combined with a bullet proof operator interface designed specifically for shop floor data collection to help simplify the process of material consumption, labor and production tracking. And in certain areas of the factory floor, voice recognition can even improve on that. Workers can simply speak into the microphone to clock in or out of jobs. Voice can also be used to request inventory replenishment or for picking orders before shipment. Using voice feels more natural to most workers, and it doesn’t necessarily require adding steps to processes.

Humans are hands-free when interacting via voice recognition. This can allow for better quality control at certain operational steps by assisting operators with prompts and allowing feedback using their voices. But until recently speech recognition was too rigid to understand accents or voice commands that didn’t follow narrow protocols. For example, in the past it couldn’t deal with changes to unexpected patterns—giving the “quantity” ahead of the “job number” when it expected the opposite. Today’s speech recognition is much more flexible, and it understands human speech and thought processes well enough to be a viable input mechanism that is fast, accurate and cost effective.

Robotics and Cobotics

For many years pundits predicted that robots would replace humans on the factory floor, but humans and robots are coexisting nicely by capitalizing on the other’s strengths, sometimes called Cobotics.

Cobots work together with humans to process the repetitive or dangerous aspects of a job while the human team member performs tasks too delicate or precise for the robot to handle.

Because of cobotics, processes become more efficient, product quality improves, repetitive stress injuries and industrial accidents are reduced, and humans have found more job satisfaction. The consistency in production rates of cobotics-controlled processes helps minimize quality related problems and the associated unexpected loss of time thereby improving on time deliver.

Digital Twins & Data Lakes

A digital twin is a rendering of a product and process using 3D virtual reality. While Data Lakes, sometimes referred to as Big Data, can obtain information from the factory floor MES and feed machine learning analytics to improve the production process even more. The digital twin can use this information during a new product design phase to see the effects of proposed changes on quality or usability. Or they may come in to play during the operational phase by analyzing external operational information such as factory humidity and temperature to recommend process changes that can minimize scrap and downtime. Some companies even plan to use them in post-sale support to predict the need for preventive maintenance.

Digital twins have the potential to improve product quality throughout its life cycle. A twin can also help bring products to market faster and more cost-effectively.

Getting Started…MES and APS Are Key to Industry 4.0

As manufacturers continue their journey to Industry 4.0, one thing that won’t change is the need to start someplace. The foundation for Industry 4.0 can be found under the name paperless factory and available with the installation of either a manufacturing process tracking software or production data collection software commonly referred to as “execution” shop floor tracking software. These operator and operations based work in process WIP tracking systems can be combined with accurate shop floor scheduling software provided by a Manufacturing Execution Software MES with Advanced Planning and Scheduling Software APS respectively. The ability to create optimized schedules along with improved human and/or machine-based error-proofing factory floor systems is critical to getting value from an Industry 4.0 technology investment.