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What is smart manufacturing?

Sensors and data analytics underpin smart manufacturing initiatives

Smart manufacturing is a process that utilizes internet-connected machinery to monitor the overall production process. The main goal of smart manufacturing is to identify opportunities for automating manufacturing operations and use data analytics to improve the overall performance of the manufacturing process.

The implementation of smart manufacturing initiatives includes the deployment of embedded sensors in manufacturing machines to collect data on their operational status and performance. Through the analysis of this data, manufacturing engineers and data analysts can look for signs that particular parts may fail, enabling preventive maintenance. Manufacturers can also analyze trends in the data to try to spot steps in their processes where production slows down or is inefficient in their use of materials.

The smart factory concept means the industrial or manufacturing processes will be organized in a different way compared to the traditional standards. In the era of intelligent manufacturing, the entire production chain, including suppliers, logistics and product lifecycle management will be connected across corporate boundaries.

In the smart manufacturing scheme, all individual steps included in the production process will be fully connected and integrated. Some of the processes to be impacted are factory and production planning, logistics product development, enterprise resource planning and manufacturing execution systems. Also, in a smart factory, the plant machinery and equipment will enable the improvement of the production process through self-optimization and autonomous decision making.

To achieve this, future smart factories will feature an interconnected combination of intelligent production technologies with the latest information and communication technologies. The smart factory will also feature digitally integrated engineering and horizontal integration, which will span the entire value chain of the manufacturing process. It will also offer vertical integration and connectivity across all levels of production.

The implementation of communications technology will enable smart factories to transfer huge amounts of data in real time and with minimum delays; connect a large number of personal devices with high data security standards; implement several wireless technologies to be used within the facility; and support remote connectivity.

Smart factories will also use sensors, which will offer flexibility in production by enabling remote and dynamic adjustments. These sensors will free personnel from making the adjustments at each manufacturing workstation. Interconnecting these devices reliably with higher-level control systems will be crucial for smart factories. Machine-to-machine data communication will also improve equipment utilization, and industrial Ethernet and radio interfaces are gradually being adopted as a supplementary communication method to wired networks.

Many IT companies are currently offering solutions for manufacturers willing to implement smart manufacturing schemes. Microsoft already offers a solution which allows manufacturers to monitor manufacturing equipment to improve the firms’ processes using industrial IoT. This solution uses sensors and advanced analytics to determine predictive maintenance, reducing unplanned downtime that cuts into production time.

Microsoft also offers solutions to improve field services. With this solution, companies have access to sensor data to improve field service scheduling, ensuring the right technicians and tools are dispatched before potential issues become a major problem.

One of the many companies already implementing smart manufacturing solutions is elevators manufacturer thyssenkrupp Elevator. The company has been using the predictive maintenance capabilities of the Azure IoT Suite, which allows thyssenkrupp’s service technicians to identify problems with elevators. In 2014, thyssenkrupp began collaborating with Microsoft and global systems integrator CGI to develop a solution that securely connects thyssenkrupp’s thousands of sensors and systems in its elevators to the cloud. With the Microsoft Azure IoT Suite, thyssenkrupp captures elevator data – such as motor temperature, shaft alignment, cab speed and door functioning – and transmits it to a single dashboard. This provides real-time data visualization of immediate issues and information for future management.

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