The future of digital manufacturing: Making Industry 4.0 a reality

As featured on Enterprise Ireland Irish Advantage

Automation, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and robotics are among the tools manufacturers can deploy to benefit from radical digital transformation.

As the world awaits a Covid-19 vaccine, the cold truth is that finding an effective vaccine is only the first step. Even if one is approved for use, however, a distinct manufacturing and supply chain challenge lies ahead.

“Seven billion of us are going to need this vaccine and it’ll be challenging to do it in a production & wider supply chain environment that isn’t designed to increase its output at that rate in such a short space of time,” says Mark Purcell, President and COO of digital manufacturing specialists CXV Global. The group, which focuses on areas such as  Real Time Automation, Machine Vision, Robotics, Serialisation, Digital Transformation and Professional and Managed Services to global customers in high-end R&D & Manufacturing sites, was formed in 2020 when Irish firm Crest Solutions and its Belgian partner Vistalink joined forces with US company Xyntek.

While some industries such as the automotive sector have embraced automation and robotics, pharmaceutical and life sciences firms have lagged when it comes to digital manufacturing, a large part of this is due to the validation requirements and regulations they must meet, he says.

“There is a huge amount of untapped value that can be accessed through the use of digital technology — life sciences really need to get on board. Post-Covid, companies are really going to have to understand and embrace digital manufacturing. This is a business issue, not a technological problem.”

Going beyond a cost-saving exercise

Purcell defines digital manufacturing as the use of computing and automation to have processes depend less on humans and to have a highly connected set of systems providing real-time data.

“By introducing collaborative robotics to repetitive industrial activities, which can involve fast moving machines, you can do many repetitive tasks safely where the machines work hand in hand with humans.”

For example, instead of having a person choose the right item from a bin and place it on an assembly line, a programmable robot equipped with machine vision technology could do that task instead. Not only is the human saved from the tedium of the task, but they are also protected from incurring a repetitive strain injury.

Purcell is quick to emphasise that digital manufacturing is not a cost-saving exercise aimed at putting humans out of jobs. “The biggest benefit is the repositioning of humans within the value chain to actually accelerate and increase the value that can be brought to the customer. We need to free up people to focus on the digitalisation of manufacturing and the supply chain rather than focus on low-level activities.”

Social distancing with augmented reality 

Augmented reality (AR) is of particular interest in the current climate, says Purcell, as it can be used in various ways to facilitate social distancing. Also by bringing collaborative robots, known as cobots, onto assembly lines means fewer people need to work close to each other on the factory floor.

“Furthermore, if remediation work is needed with a factory system, instead of us sending an employee to the facility, we can address it through an AR support system. We can be there without being there.”

AR technology can also enable workers to learn and work more intuitively and independently. “We can use AR to digitise work instruction so people can have headsets on and follow SOP [standard operating procedure] instructions while carrying out activities, leaving their hands free to follow the steps. With voice recognition, the person can call instructions back and validate the actions they are taking.”

Industry 4.0: more strategy, fewer buzzwords

Purcell says the coronavirus crisis has been a wake-up call for many manufacturers. “What ‘Industry 4.0’ has lacked in the main is strategic planning by businesses around digital transformation. There is so much noise and so many buzzwords, but people often don’t have a consolidated strategy. This hasn’t made it to the boardroom in a strong enough way.”

The way forward, he says, is to consider digital manufacturing in terms of customer value creation and cultural change management.

“Everybody will say they have an industry 4.0 strategy, but in reality we haven’t seen the execution at the same rate as the evolution of technologies and new ways of working. A lot of that is due to the lack of a red thread between commercial strategy and digital transformation strategy. It’s tough, but this isn’t something that you go in, turn on the computer and it’s there. It’s a big cultural change programme.”

Connect the data, join the dots

Purcell returns to the need for the life sciences and pharma industries to transform across the supply chain. “If you look at their systems, such as research and development, laboratory operations, manufacturing operations, supply chains, ERP systems and manufacturing execution systems, they are not all connected up yet.”

By connecting different manufacturing systems, using smart data collectors and making the most of Big Data, companies can use AI and deep learning to produce insights which employees can feed into their decision-making.

With real-time understanding of factors such as customer requirements and scientific breakthroughs, manufacturers could strategise around increasing production capacity long before the actual need arose. This would not only save costs and reduce risks, but also enable them to meet customer needs more quickly.

“The data exists. It’s just not connected yet,” says Purcell, adding that we’ll see exponential change the more systems are connected. “It’s going to be transformative beyond what we can ever imagine. Imagine if all the research centres on the planet, including commercial and university centres, had all their data connected. Imagine what problems could be solved. We are working with our customers to help make real time automated and connected manufacturing a reality.”