Since the 18th century, the world has known three industrial revolutions: mechanization, mass production and automation. But now, in the 21st century, the 4th industrial revolution is beginning to take shape: the revolution of robotization. Welcome to Factory 4.0!
For several years now, production plants have been engaged in a process of transformation as they integrate digital technologies into their systems. According to a KPMG survey, the global market for new manufacturing technologies is expected to be worth $320 billion by 2020 (up from $200 billion in 2019). What we are seeing is much more than evolutionary change: this is a profound transformation.
Smart, agile manufacturing
Communicating sensors, IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), smart data... The arrival of digital technology in production processes is making manufacturing smarter and more agile. Now interconnected, machines are constantly communicating with each other and exchanging information in real time. This smart dialog is designed to give a further boost to performance and competitiveness. According to Saint-Gobain Senior Vice President Manufacturing, Performance and Technology Benoit d'Iribarne: “The resulting applications are many, and include real-time production monitoring, automated alert systems, predictive maintenance and manufacturing acceptance optimization.”
One example is the use by Adfors - a Saint-Gobain Group subsidiary specializing in fiberglass-based reinforcement solutions - of artificial intelligence-based software to optimize operation of its furnaces. The benefits of doing so include fewer resources used, lower costs and improved product quality. Better yet, manufacturers are now able to leverage their data to target customer expectations and adapt to meet their needs in real time. It’s all about ultra-customization! "In BtoB, expectations have changed significantly", confirms Jérôme Lionet, Managing Director of Saint-Gobain Glass Industry. "Our customers are ordering more frequently the evening before, expecting a Click & Collect service. We have to plan our flows with a weekly view instead of monthly and develop a stronger traceability of our products until delivery."
Say hi to the cobots
But it would be a big mistake to see the factory of the future as no more than a technological adventure. It’s certainly important to digitalize production lines and review information systems. But that's not nearly enough. By reshuffling the cards of the production process, Industry 4.0 facilitates new ways of working. So what’s the problem? The fear that people will be replaced by (smarter) machine tools. Is that a realistic fear? Yes. And no! Because Industry 4.0 isn’t designed to replace people with robots, but to make their tasks easier.
For a good illustration of this people/machine partnership, we need to look at the collaborative robots known as ‘cobots’. The point of this approach is to combine human creativity with the accuracy and speed of robotics to enable operators to delegate certain repetitive tasks to machines, leaving them free to focus on missions that add greater value.