The smart factory is said to herald the fourth industrial revolution, a fundamental shift in operating practices that will change the way that manufacturing companies operate.
The current global economic meltdown is ramping up the pressure on an already beleaguered manufacturing industry, particularly in terms of the flexibility and efficiency of production processes.
This requires production and administrative processes to be meshed with each other via IT systems in order to optimise the use and capacity of machines and lines, while also responding rapidly to wrong developments in production and thus reducing adverse effects on the business.
The future scenario of the 'smart factory' represents the zenith of this development. The factory can be modified and expanded at will, combines all components from different manufacturers and enables them to take on context-related tasks autonomously. Integrated user interfaces will still be required at most factories for basic functionalities. The complex control operations will run wirelessly and ad hoc via mobile terminals such as smartphones.
In many manufacturing companies, however, the reality is very different. Every machine generally still operates in isolation without any interfaces to vertical or horizontal communication with other systems in the classic automation pyramid. To date, companies have had scarcely any capability to respond rapidly to changes in demand or supplies or to quality and service problems.
A highly productive factory moves materials efficiently across the factory floor, made possible in part by manufacturing and control data seamlessly moving from sensors to servers to services. The future factory of industrial automation is arbitrarily modifiable and expandable, or in modern manufacturing parlance, 'flexible'. It connects components from a variety of manufacturers enabling its components to perform context-related tasks autonomously.
In the mid-1980s computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) became one of the most important technologies in Germany. During these days, so-called CIM centres were established and funded by the government to demonstrate new ideas and developments to possible users.
On the one hand, these centres provided a basis of close-to-reality research to further enhance the technology; on the other hand, they served as demonstration portals for the new industrial applications. Mainly due to these centres, the CIM technology became applicable to industrial environments.
Today we face a comparable change in technology. Many technologies - particularly information and communication technologies - emerged from consumer needs and reached maturity, which turns out to be applicable in industrial environments as well.
Further development and integration of these modern information technologies will lead to increasing cross'linking, miniaturisation and intelligence of systems. This is known as Ambient Intelligence, which means intuitive use of nearly invisible micro'appliances in a dynamic environment.
Actors and sensors within industrial scenarios will become 'smart', which means that they possess integrated computing power with such low power-consumption that self-sufficient functionality can be guaranteed for multiple years.
They will also communicate within a reconfigurable, wireless network. Their integrated user interfaces will be necessary for basic functionalities at the most.
Industrial automation is characterised today by an increasing decentralisation of the automation functions. One added factor is that production-related and administrative information systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), manufacturing execution systems (MES) and automation systems have to be linked efficiently to each other to permit the prompt procurement of materials.
This places new demands on the communication systems in terms of their performance and integration. Industry is responding to this by making ever greater use of information technologies in automation. These include PC-based automation solutions and the use of interface technologies and protocols such as OPC, XML and TCP/IP.
They guarantee that all production-related data on order and material streams, costs and product quality from the various IT systems and production sectors, and from the shop floor system, is merged and made available in real time. They are also important drivers for using Internet-based services, for instance in the field of remote maintenance, for Web technologies as a human/machine interface and the integration of knowledge-based services such as e-services.
In 2004 a number of smart homes were built around the world in order to develop, test and demonstrate the use of ubiquitous computing technologies in daily life. A group of German companies - under the guidance of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence DFKI, the department for innovative factory systems and Professor Dr Detlef Zuehlke of DFKI-IFS Kaiserslautern - discussed the necessity of a similar approach for industrial use. From these discussions the smart factory idea was born and realised.
The true advent of the smart factory is said to herald the fourth industrial revolution, a fundamental shift in operating practices that will change the way that manufacturing operates. A true network era enabled by smart networked devices.
This fourth dimension follows on from the mechanical automation era symbolised by the invention of the steam engine in the late 18th century, the mass production era of the second industrial revolution heralded by the conveyor belt with Henry Ford in the 1930s, and, finally, the electrical automation era enabled by microelectronics in the 1960s.
"A smart factory is characterised by several paradigms," Professor Zuehlke explains. "All objects - machines, field devices and products - are smart. That means that they have sufficient computing power and communication capabilities to allow for autonomous operation.
"All objects are networked based on IP-Standards and can communicate. Smart objects will aggregate to smart systems and factories and allow self-organisation, also known as 'plug 'n' play'. Smart factories will offer a much higher degree of agility with regard to product and market changes.
"And, last but not least, the user is seen as the most important enabler; systems are designed for user-friendliness. You may compare this development with the conversion of the 'internet of things' into factory use - perhaps a factory of things."
A demonstration factory was built in Kaiserslautern, Germany, supported by many industrial partners organised in a legal society. In 2007, this smart factory went into operation and has served as a research testbed for smart technologies.
"Today, there is quite a big production system producing and bottling liquid soap," Professor Zuehlke adds. "The main system was extended over the years by new modules demonstrating new technologies like wireless control or Service Oriented Archtechtures (SoA). Since April a new manufacturing line was added. All these parts serve as a realistic testbed for the integration of the smart principles.
"From my point of view, only very few factories are really smart. If they are, they are smart from just one supplier such as Siemens. Often smart is only seen in conjunction with RFID tracking. But factories that follow the above given definition are not yet a reality.
"The smart factory idea will be a general paradigm. Over the next few years the different smart technologies will become more and more integrated into our factories. This will be more of a steady evolution than a revolutionary break.
"Many of the smart technologies have reached a sufficient level of maturity only in consumer applications. For industrial use this is not enough. Examples are WLAN or smartphones, which offer cheap and promising solutions, but these are not yet ready for a safe and reliable industrial use."
Zuehlke continues: "We started with electrical sensors/actors, for example 4-20mA, which were later equipped with computing power to bring new functionalities and very specialised field bus access. Now we go one level up and talk about services that these devices offer into a network instead of signals. The increasing computing and networking power enables them to process information on a higher level. This level is also characterised by the paradigm of Cyber Physical Systems."
As with most technological advances, this brave new world for factory automation is being shepherded along a controlled path by standards and regulations. "They play a very important role," Zuehlke says. "A customer will not accept solutions just from one supplier. Instead, suppliers are asked to offer solutions for supplier-independent integration.
"Standards are also a key enabler for reducing complexity. In future we need more standards, especially on the higher levels of the ISO-OSI-model. The goal can be compared with the Lego world. You have different Lego bricks with various sizes, functions and colours, but the interfaces are transparent and standardised.
"As it will follow evolutionary steps, we will see a steady move towards smart systems. A complete smart factory will be perhaps 10 years away."
One company that is adopting smart factory philosophy is Hareon Solar Corporation to improve productivity across its solar photovoltaic (PV) cell manufacturing operations in China.
"We have identified factory automation as an enabling technology that will allow us to balance multiple parts of our internal supply chain to maximise manufacturing efficiency," Dr Tobby Wu, vice president of operations at Hareon Solar, says. "We plan to expand the scope in the near future to include our solar wafer production lines, creating a fully-integrated, ingot-to-cell manufacturing operation."
"Our solar customers are recognising the need for advanced manufacturing solutions to give them a competitive edge in this fast-growing industry," Charlie Pappis, vice-president and general manager of Applied Global Services, smart factory software vendor, says. "We're seeing strong momentum for smart factory software for crystalline silicon PV production, particulary in China, demonstrating that Applied is meeting this need with an affordable solution that can be easily tailored to accommodate rapid capacity expansion."
Timeline for smart
The automation of production processes will permit existing productivity potentials to be better and more efficiently exploited. IT innovations will deliver a technology push and, therefore, contribute significantly to achieving a digital, real-time factory.
Further development of automation will'not remain limited to traditional application fields such as plant, mechanical and automotive engineering in the years ahead. The fields of energy, production, process and environmental engineering, together with micro-technology and nanotechnology, also show huge growth potential.
It is apparent that the rising demands relating to energy efficiency will have the greatest impact on automation in the future. Further important impetuses will come from advances in miniaturisation, the increasing use of Internet technologies, the desire for safety or the introduction of new standards and specifications. *