One of the cornerstones in Industry 4.0 is increased automation that allows companies to capture the long-term value from their processes, reduce human involvement and waste, increase flexibility, and optimize the decision-making process. In this article, we will explore:
- The potential of automation in different industries;
- Levels of automation;
- Benefits of automation;
- Five pillars of automation;
- Success stories of industrial automation.
Many sectors related to industrial manufacturing, processing, transportation, and warehousing of physical goods are in dire need of automation and process optimization. However, some areas are more prone and open to automation than others.
For example, in both manufacturing and transportation, the predictable physical work takes the most time. It has mid to high automation potential, meaning that a combination of technical solutions could allow companies to reduce 10 to 40% of the efforts spent on it. Another area for improvement is data collection and processing. While many businesses have adopted automation in its basic form, many of them are still struggling to make any use of it.
If the company is looking to move forward with their automation, they need to understand their automation maturity level and what needs to be done.
Four levels of industrial automation define the company's automation maturity and suggest the steps to be taken in this phase. Experts describe the transition from each level to the next one and define three phases within this process.
Level 1: Low maturity
At this stage, the company has a limited infrastructure for any industrial automation. Typically, there are no RPA, sensors, or data-collection systems. The general recommendation is to implement automation on the small-scale project to test it properly and then scale it out on the company-wide level.
Level 2: Mid-maturity
The company typically installs more sensors and systems during the next phase but only utilizes a fraction of the potential. E.g., the business owners decided to install sensors, but the majority of data they collect is not processed or used to make any changes.
Level 3: High maturity
Once the company has mastered the traditional automation on the manufacturing floor, it is usually moving to its high maturity stage. It introduces more complex solutions like Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Automated Mobile Robots (AMRs). However, this business still lacks automation of the managerial, support-function, and back-office tasks.
Level 4: Best-in-class
Such companies have mastered both traditional and cutting-edge technologies used in industrial automation of all spectrums of the operations. They automated their manufacturing sites, optimized supply chains, and introduced complex data analytics to enhance decision-making.
Every phase (e.g., moving from low to mid-level maturity in automation) brings many pros to the company and its departments. Industrial automation solutions can improve virtually any process and bring significant value to the majority of businesses. Let's take a look at some of the most common advantages of industrial automation and their effect on the processes within the company.
First and foremost, automation allows businesses to understand their own processes, identify the weak links, and make the overall system more efficient.
Unlike humans, machines don’t get tired and do not need restrooms or lunch breaks. Installation of smart machines will help businesses improve their mass production and make the processes more effective.
Machines are less prone to making mistakes. Moreover, advanced solutions like Computer vision allow manufacturers to have real-time quality control operations with little to no involvement of humans.
As said above, machines are more predictable in their pace and amount of work. It allows businesses to plan the supply chain operations and deliver their products in a timely manner.
- Informed decision making
When the processes are automated, they generate a lot of data. When processed and appropriately utilized, it helps to make smarter moves, plan in advance, and understand the processes.
Automation allows companies to reduce human involvement and provide safer working conditions. It is especially critical as the majority of the world is still recovering from the pandemic.
- Cost reduction
Despite the high initial investment, the return of this investment is super high. It helps boost the overall productivity, improve the supply chain operations, deliver better quality products, and cut unnecessary costs.
So what technological advancements are driving automation in Industry 4.0?
Industry 3.0 introduced us to robots, Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), and Automated Mobile Robots (AMRs). However, this industrial revolution takes it even further in terms of industrial automation technologies. We’ve partnered with industry leaders and Fortune 500 companies for over a decade and noticed five major technological trends.
Advanced data analytics
Data analytics is one of the biggest factors that drive automation in 2021 and beyond. Based on the type of data you collect and how you process it, there are four layers to your analytics:
- Descriptive analytics helps you understand what is happening with your machinery or products, how effective your operations are, etc. It relies heavily on accurate and timely data and allows you to build strong visual representations of the processes.
- Diagnostic analytics answers the question of why specific processes fail or are less effective than initially anticipated. This type of analysis helps you dig deeper into the root cause of the issue and find the problem.
- Predictive analytics helps to understand patterns and tendencies. The practical application ranges from predictive analytics to interpreting sales and forecasting demand.
- Prescriptive analytics utilizes the information at hand to indicate the best strategy or approach to a particular problem. It also allows businesses to optimize every process to its fullest potential.
Enterprise mobility is one of the biggest enablers of automation. It’s a combination of many solutions, like enterprise mobility management, mobile device management, mobile app management, as well as client and content management. Among the top goals of these solutions are:
- Compliance with security regulations;
- Data loss prevention;
- Bring your own device (BYOD) programs and end-user accountability;
- Adoption of mobile applications and portability of the resources.
Such solutions allow companies to provide factory workers with mobile devices (phones and tablets) with pre-installed company software, thus allowing them to maneuver freely on the floor and be less tied to their desks.
Internet of Things
One of the key applications of this technology is the automation of field operations and their integration with business processes. It allows manufacturers to monitor the performance and health of devices, schedule predictive maintenance, perform remote troubleshooting, and improve the safety and security of their operations.
There are many types of industrial IoT implementations.
- A Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) is an industrial computer that is programmed for automatic operations. It relies on information from sensors, processes the information, and makes decisions about a particular industrial process.
- Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) collects the data and processes in real-time via direct integration with sensors and provides insights for optimization of the operations.
- Human Machine Interface (HMI) is sophisticated software that enables human operators to control the processes and applications.
- Distributed Control System (DCS) is a centralized monitoring network that allows separately controlling elements within the automated system.
Along with the adoption of AI and machine learning, many businesses are also looking at computer vision solutions. By giving the machines ability to ‘see’, companies can open the door to new business opportunities. Some of them are:
- Vision-guided robots can identify and analyze the position of a production item on the lane and react as programmed. This type of CV is most often used in pick and place applications.
- Anomaly detection is a preprogrammed CV solution that compares a new image to an existing dataset and alarms the responsible person about deviations from the standard, dangerous situations, etc.
- Defect reduction allows machines to analyze a large number of items directly on the production line and match them to the acceptance criteria. It also allows detecting any inconsistencies in the quality and calls for maintenance ahead of schedule.
- Packaging inspection can scan the box from several angles and check whether it meets the standard.
- Barcodes and text labels scanning allows businesses to speed up order processing and enhance the tracking system.
- Labeling, tracking, and tracing can also be handled with CV solutions. The system can identify mismatched/misplaced goods or warn about the items with damaged labeling.
Keep reading about Computer Vision and Industry 4.0
Artificial intelligence and machine learning in industrial automation
McKinsey's research shows that more than 20% of large companies have some form of machine learning and artificial intelligence embedded in their processes.
Many small to midsize businesses are now catching up with the industry leaders in the adoption of machine learning algorithms, which are becoming increasingly popular in the automation of industrial systems. They help companies reduce manual work, optimize costs, enable intelligent decision-making, and streamline various management processes.
We have helped many companies in manufacturing, supply chain, and related industries with their industrial automation and optimization of the processes. Here are some of the projects we worked on:
- Fluke Corporation, is a US-based company that manufactures, distributes, and services electronic test tools and software for measuring and condition monitoring. Our teams have been working on an enterprise mobility solution that allows company personnel to handle order management and inventory management tasks. We created a mobile application with offline support. We have also integrated a CMMS (computerized maintenance management system) within the app.
Another solution we have worked on is a product that helps detect abnormal behavior of equipment and sends a notification to the user’s mobile device, enabling efficient reactive maintenance workflows.
- We have also partnered with Bitlog to work on their enterprise mobility solution. The company develops innovative software products for supply chain and logistics needs. Our team worked on the Transportation Management System (TMS) and the Warehouse Management System (WMS).
- Our client (under NDA) is a Global Fortune 100 engineering and technology company from Germany. They needed to redevelop a complex logistics management system that includes ERP, big data, IoT, and AI. Our development team is also working on a computer-vision solution based on industrial optic sensors and lenses and Nivida Jetson devices that will allow this client to manage and track the goods in a non-touch way.
- WEINMANN Emergency is a medical technology company that manufactures the life-saving equipment used by emergency services, hospitals, and military medical corps. Our engineers worked closely with the client on the certification of their device, delivering our embedded software expertise.
The N-iX team also developed a provisioning system that enables service, maintenance, and debugging of the device’s data. It allows the client to reduce the operational costs, improve the reliability of the devices, and provide seamless operations.
- Another client (under NDA) needed help with their industrial fleet management solution. The N-iX team was involved in developing an OEM-based Linux connectivity gateway. Gateway is installed in the vehicle for monitoring and management of vehicle activities tracked by a GPS system.
Our team has also contributed to the development of an Android app for a rugged tablet, allowing the driver to manage the services. We have also been working on incorporating other peripheries and sensors.
How can N-iX help you with industrial automation?
N-iX is a software development company with 2,000+ experts. We have delivery centers in Ukraine, Poland, and Bulgaria. We build long-lasting partnerships with manufacturers and Tier 1 distributors from the US, the UK, and Western Europe.
- We create end-to-end enterprise mobility solutions, including software architecture, back-end, and front-end development, quality control, and product development.
- N-iX has a strong portfolio of data projects, including data analytics, Big Data, Data Science, business intelligence, and more.
- Our engineers have worked on compex Computer Vision, AI, and machine learning solutions for clients in manufacturing, supply chain, and other industries.
- We provide industrial automation services to industry leaders and enterprises all over the world.
The company has over two decades of experience in delivering top-notch offshore development services.