Smart Factory Insights: The Progress of Machine Intelligence

Adversity drives focus, realization, and innovation. This is especially true in manufacturing, which has felt the effects of recent challenges. For decades, manufacturing has been overly focused on short-term business objectives, with little regard for risk or adaptability. This oversight has persisted into automation projects and digital transformation initiatives. Innovators today realize there is no way back, that we must embrace the intelligence we all should have learned.

We’re now seeing the true fragility of our business world after a decade or two of relative calm. When nothing untoward happens for a while, risks get downplayed in favor of short-term results, and complacency takes hold. The enduring focus of automation within manufacturing has been predominantly stuck with Industry 3.0—that is, the automation of physical tasks once performed by humans. Recently however, automation of human thought (aligning with Industry 4.0) has become the origin of true digital transformation. Unfortunately, for many this started at a time of relative calm in the industry, focusing again on short-term profits rather than long-term resilience. But it’s not too late to change.

It’s a Human Resource Issue
The recent trilogy of challenges—COVID-19, political instability in several regions, and a restless climate—have led to known fundamental effects, including shortages, inflation, and human resource issues. It is taking a significant toll. Existing software automation has revealed its true limitations in many cases. Relatively simple automation of operations, optimized to meet short-term goals without real consideration of long-term challenges, has proven to be near-useless. It was left to good, old human intelligence to respond to recent extraordinary events, make quick decisions, and navigate through obstacles, as well as look for opportunities. Lack of investment in flexibility, the acceptance of dependencies on materials and products made in remote locations, as well as reliance on key people in the organization where only one person knows or can perform certain tasks, have led to extreme challenges for many.

In our continuously changing world, we seek to avoid things over which we have little or no control. Local sourcing of key materials, security of operations and data, and automation choices that provide flexibility with a vast range of simultaneous operational and business models, should top the “to do” list, as manufacturing embraces the world’s uncertain future.

The most unexpected and interesting challenge, however, is that during such volatility, we found we could not even rely on human intelligence. We are now experiencing economic patterns of inflation and potential recession, which seem familiar to those old enough to remember the 1980s. Legacy economic tools to deal with these issues, however, seem inappropriate as, unlike previous cases, employment levels are very high—exactly the opposite of previous scenarios. While companies were focused on business challenges, people were also making their own private changes, as they decided (or were forced) to seek a “better life,” moving from roles that were just acceptable to ones that stimulate them. This turbulence in the labor market can be regarded as good news from the digital transformation perspective.

So, Let the Machines Do the Talking
The technology behind automation of physical work continues to evolve considerably. There are more choices of hardware automation solutions than ever before. The priority between flexibility and optimization, however, is now under serious review. Rather than having a person or an automation dedicated to a specific role, we have learned that such resources should be flexible, allowing them to be dynamic across a whole selection of prioritized tasks. Humans have the physical dexterity to be flexible; automation is also making progress.

The real challenge, in both cases, is to provide the continuous step-by-step guidance as to how to perform and complete each task. Humans are then not dependent on niche, rarely used training, nor on specialist knowledge. People receive information in the form of electronic work instructions, and deliver to automation through IIoT-based commands and data exchanges. This innovation brings the need for a holistic view of operations, sourced from the domain of MES, which already provides the central control and management of operations. Standards-based “plug and play” interoperability across the shopfloor, for example with IPC-CFX, is proving its worth, and differentiation from older data exchange mechanisms, as it provides any machine or solution a secure protocol and fully defined unambiguous language.

An extension of this MES intelligence is to automate the decision-making processes that drive operational events. Human intelligence is no longer motivated, or interested in, searching for data and using it to make mindless routine decisions. Retaining sustainable human intelligence will be for those who derive job satisfaction from making complex decisions in an easy and timely way, based on the availability of immediate, accurate, and contextualized knowledge. The intelligence within MES is based on internal complex data models, created from many years of experience, where data is contextualized across many factors. This enables software to take routine decisions and action them, such as the best timing and selection of a material replenishment. This enhances the human contribution in manufacturing to work at a higher level of responsibility and provides for more job satisfaction.

Here is where we see the benefits. As an inherent part of digital transformation, software-based automation that is intelligent and flexible helps resolve both day-to-day business operations, and supports challenging exceptions. It starts with the respect for human intelligence, a change that we have begun to take seriously, and is potentially the most fundamental challenge of anything we’ve faced so far. It may come as a bit of a surprise, though the signs have been there for a while. People want to be more evolved, to get their hands dirty through their chosen hobbies, rather than daily obligations. As humans have left manufacturing operations for whatever reasons, it took out their wealth of skills, knowledge, and intelligence, which perhaps was often taken for granted. It has been especially noticeable during the pandemic when many business-critical exceptions needed to be dealt with. Intelligent software built into automation and machines, and especially modern MES solutions, will fill the gaps. The key requirement is a rich and mature internal data model:

  • Representing knowledge about every aspect of the manufacturing operation
  • Making and executing routine decisions, with significant flexibility
  • Providing key intel to humans with which their intelligence results in real business differentiation

Conclusion
As we move forward, we need to revisit our business practices. Operational risk and dependencies in the supply chain as well as inefficiencies in terms of environmental impact and energy use are sure to be top of mind. We must revisit our strategies behind digital transformation, not just to help automate and optimize existing, fixed operations, but to provide flexibility, to relieve humans from the distractions of data gathering and trivial decision-making, and to create a sustainable and resilient environment.

In between challenges, we will be tempted to revert and focus too intently on short-term goals. Such a strategy helps business for only a short term, while cannibalizing future potential. Let’s seize the benefits that this silver lining has presented and be prepared for any future challenges when they come. By doing so, we increase the quality of life for our human teams that are essential to meet sustainable business objectives.

This column originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of SMT007 Magazine.

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2022

Smart Factory Insights: The Progress of Machine Intelligence

09-27-2022

Adversity drives focus, realization, and then innovation. This is especially true in manufacturing, which has felt the effects of recent challenges. For decades, manufacturing has been overly focused on short-term business objectives, with little regard for risk and adaptability. This oversight has persisted into automation projects and digital transformation initiatives. Innovators today realize that there is no way back, that we must embrace the intelligence—the silver linings—that we must have learned.

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Smart Factory Insights: Zombie Cars: The Next Pandemic Is Digital

07-20-2022

In the manufacturing world, we increasingly rely on internal and outsourced security partners to keep our IT networks safe. One report stated that as many as 50% of manufacturing companies have already been the target of ransomware attempts. Therefore, there is more work to do, especially on the neglected OT network. Industry requirements, such as CMMC, invoke costs and difficulties. But like traceability in the past, with the right preparation, this “burden” can be turned around to become a near zero cost, or even a benefit.

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Smart Factory Insights: Fractional Materials and High-Mix Manufacturing

05-25-2022

We used to discuss manufacturing paradigms in terms of high- or low-mix, coupled with high- or low-volume, with many shades of grey in between. Now, we have a new dimension, that of high-volatility, as key dependencies on labour, materials and logistics contribute challenges to production, which in turn, is subject to the volatility of customer demand. Material management more than ever before, is being either the key enabler for business success, or your nemesis in not being able to achieve the necessary recovery plan if not thought out properly.

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Smart Factory Insights: Has the Industry 4.0 Gold Rush Ended?

04-06-2022

Industry 4.0, though only five years old, already has a checkered history. With buzzwords flying, existing technologies—re-branded as Industry 4.0 solutions—have been in demand. Manufacturers embarked on the Industry 4.0 “gold rush” to gather as much data as possible, and by whatever means necessary, to get those nuggets of smart manufacturing credibility. Today, the more mature approach of Industry 4.0 is emerging with consideration of a real return on investment (ROI) as well as sustainability. Taking advantage of such maturity may have been the smartest option all along.

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Smart Factory Insights: CFX IIoT Open-Source Hardware

03-09-2022

The IPC Connected Factory Exchange standard, CFX, has triggered a revolution in the way that industrial machines communicate in a secure, IIoT-based, plug and play environment. Attention now is on how CFX can be connected to older, “dumber” machines, bringing 100% visibility and control across the whole manufacturing floor, thereby avoiding the numerous technical and financial pitfalls historically experienced.

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2021

Smart Factory Insights: Digital Transcendence—Fear of The Unknown

12-22-2021

The first three industrial revolutions have brought us automation of physical tasks through adoption of mechanical and electrical machines, the benefit of which has been quite easy to appreciate. Industry 4.0 automation, however, is driven almost exclusively from the digital realm, representing a whole new world of intangibility. With manufacturing being rather averse to unplanned change or risk, unless there are very compelling reasons, how do we get to fully trust digital technology needed for our businesses today, taking us toward manufacturing digital transcendence?

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Smart Factory Insights: The Costs of Legacy Thinking

12-01-2021

As humans, we learn facts, gain impressions, create solutions, put practices into place, and move onto our next challenge. Over time, our intent is to create a legacy of value, but in many cases, we are creating legacies in a different sense. Our knowledge, experience, and creations age or become superseded, but there is resistance to replace or update. An increasing gap develops between perception and reality. Younger, more agile peers take advantage, get ahead, and we look away, thinking that they don’t know what they are doing. Though a natural human phenomenon, decision-makers in manufacturing today need to bear this mind more than ever.

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Smart Factory Insights: Hands-off Manufacturing

07-12-2021

The use of automation has not eliminated causes of unreliability, nor defects, which ironically continues to drive the need for humans to be hands-on, even as part of SMT operations. There is clearly something missing, so cue our digital twin.

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Smart Factory Insights: Me and My Digital Twin

04-12-2021

A fully functional digital twin involves more than it may initially seem. At first we tend to think about access to information. There is a great deal of trust to be taken into account when creating a digital twin, as there is scope for its use both for good and evil.

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2020

Smart Factory Insights: Changing Roles in the Digital Factory

12-01-2020

Experts once required to have a knowledge of specialized materials and processes are giving way to those experienced in the application of automated and computerized solutions. Michael Ford describes how it is time to reinvent the expectations and qualifications that we seek in managers, engineers, and production operators to attract and support a different kind of manufacturing innovation.

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Smart Factory Insights: Smart Factories—Indirectly the Death of Test and Inspection

11-04-2020

In the smart factory, test and inspection are reinvented, contributing direct added value, playing a new and critically important role where defects are avoided through the use of data, and creating a completely different value proposition. Michael Ford explains how the digitalized Deming Theory can be explained to those managing budgets and investments to ensure that we move our operations forward digitally in the best way possible.

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Smart Factory Insights: Trust in Time

08-05-2020

We’ve all heard of “just in time” as applied to the supply chain, but with ongoing disruption due to COVID-19, increasing risk motivates us to return to the bad habit of hoarding excess inventory. Michael Ford introduces the concept of "trust in time"—a concept that any operation, regardless of size or location, can utilize today.

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Smart Factory Insights: It’s Not What You Have—It’s How You Use It

06-03-2020

According to the reports, all the machines in the factory are performing well, but the factory itself appears to be in a coma, unable to fulfill critical delivery requirements. Is this a nightmare scenario, or is it happening every day? Trying to help, some managers are requesting further investment in automation, while others are demanding better machine data that explains where it all went wrong. Digital technology to the rescue, or is it making the problem worse?

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Smart Factory Insights: Seeing Around Corners

04-20-2020

Each of us has limitations, strengths, and weaknesses. Our associations with social groups—including our friends, family, teams, schools, companies, towns, counties, countries, etc.—enable us to combine our strengths into a collective, such that we all contribute to an overall measure of excellence. There is strength in numbers. Michael Ford explains how this most human of principles needs to apply to IIoT, smart manufacturing, and AI if we are to reach the next step of smart manufacturing achievement.

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Smart Factory Insights: Size Matters—The Digital Twin

02-01-2020

In the electronics manufacturing space, at least, less is more. Michael Ford considers what the true digital twin is really all about—including the components, uses, and benefits—and emphasizes that it is not just an excuse to show some cool 3D graphics.

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Smart Factory Insights: What You No Longer Need to Learn

01-14-2020

Naturally evolving layers of technological applications allow us to build and make progress, layer by layer, rather than staying relatively stagnant with only incremental improvement. To gain ground in manufacturing, Michael Ford explains how we need to embrace next-layer hardware and software technologies now so that we can focus on applying these solutions as part of a digital factory.

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2019

Smart Factory Insights: Dromology—Time-space Compression in Manufacturing

11-25-2019

Dromology is a new word for many, including Microsoft Word. Dromology resonates as an interesting way to describe changes in the manufacturing process due to technical and business innovation over the last few years, leading us towards Industry 4.0. Michael Ford explores dromology in the assembly factory today.

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Smart Factory Insights: Trends and Opportunities at SMTAI 2019

10-14-2019

SMTAI is more than just a simple trade show. For me, it is an opportunity to meet face to face with colleagues and friends in the industry to talk about and discuss exciting new industry trends, needs, technologies, and ideas.

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Smart Factory Insights: Recognizing the Need for Change

09-24-2019

We are reminded many times in manufacturing, that "you cannot fix what you cannot see" and "you cannot improve what you cannot measure." These annoying aphorisms are all very well as a motivational quip for gaining better visibility of the operation. However, the reality is that there is a lot going on that no-one is seeing.

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Accelerating Tech: Standards-driven, Digital Design Flow for Industry 4.0

04-24-2019

The term “fragmented manufacturing” is a good way to describe current assembly manufacturing challenges in an Industry 4.0 environment. Even in Germany, productivity reportedly continues to decline. To reach the upside of Industry 4.0, data flows relating to design play a major role—one that brings significant opportunity to the overall assembly business.

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The Truth Behind AI

02-28-2019

The term "artificial intelligence" or "AI" has become a source of confusion for many—heralded as part of Industry 4.0, yet associated with the threat of automation replacing human workers. AI is software rather than hardware, and it's time to put these elements of AI into context, enabling us as an industry to embrace the opportunities that so-called AI represents without being drawn in, or pushed away, by the hype.

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2018

Resolving the Productivity Paradox

12-22-2018

The productivity paradox continues to thrive. To a growing number of people and companies, this does not come as a surprise because investment in automation alone is still just an extension of Industry 3.0. There has been a failure to understand and execute what Industry 4.0 really is, which represents fundamental changes to factory operation before any of the clever automation and AI tools can begin to work effectively.

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The Truth About CFX

10-23-2018

A great milestone in digital assembly manufacturing has been reached by having the IPC Connected Factory Exchange (CFX) industrial internet of things (IIoT) standard in place with an established, compelling commitment of adoption. What's the next step?

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Advanced Digitalization Makes Best Practice, Part 2: Adaptive Planning

08-27-2018

For Industry 4.0 operations, Adaptive Planning has the capability of replacing both legacy APS tools, simulations, and even Excel solutions. As time goes on, with increases in the scope, quality and reliability of live data coming from the shop-floor, using for example the CFX, it is expected that Adaptive Planning solutions will become progressively smarter, offering greater guidance while managing constraints as well as optimization.

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Advanced Digitalization Makes Best Practice Part 1: Digital Remastering

07-02-2018

As digitalization and the use of IoT in the manufacturing environment continues to pick up speed, critical changes are enabled, which are needed to achieve the levels of performance and flexibility expected with Industry 4.0. This first part of a series on new digital best practices looks at examples of the traditional barriers to flexibility and value creation, and suggests new digital best practices to see how these barriers can be avoided, or even eliminated.

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Configure to Order: Different by Design

01-15-2018

Perhaps in the future, sentient robots looking back at humans today will consider that we were a somewhat random bunch of people as no two of us are the same. Human actions and choices cannot be predicted reliably, worse even than the weather. As with any team however, our ability to rationalize in many different ways in parallel is, in fact, our strength, creating a kind of biological “fuzzy logic.”

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2017

Counterfeit: A Quality Conundrum

10-01-2017

There is an imminent, critical challenge facing every manufacturer in the industry. The rise in the ingress of counterfeit materials into the supply chain has made them prolific, though yet, the extent is understated. What needs to be faced now is the need for incoming inspection, but at what cost to industry, and does anyone remember how to do it?

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