Building the vision of the Autonomous Factory

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Written by
Nils Heininger

Head of Smart Factory Solutions at Panasonic Connect Europe

Building the vision of the Autonomous Factory

In the first of a two-part article, Nils Heininger, Head of Smart Factory Solutions at Panasonic Connect Europe, outlines his vision for the autonomous factory and how Panasonic is at the heart of that change.

Imagine the gates to the factory slowly swing open as the self-driving truck arrives. It reverses into the unloading bay and a team of robots swing into co-ordinated action. They remove the contents and load it onto the conveyor belt that recognises and directs the components in the right direction – ready just in time for the next production run.

The “intelligent” software drives the operation. Plugged into the factory and the wider supply chain it knows exactly when to order supplies, how to schedule, configure and run different production lines. It adapts based on any arising issues, such as changes in demand or supply problems. It is the brain of the operation.

On the other side of the facility, quality checking and packaging takes place. Before loading onto the next available self-driving vehicle, where the goods are transported automatically to the next step in the supply chain.

 The autonomous factory, at the heart of a connected and auto-adaptive supply chain, is a vision long held up as the ideal manufacturing vision of the future. A world where we have lights-out production with zero human operators. The moment where we achieve equivalency; where the manufacturing plant could be located almost anywhere in the world and not be impacted by the cost of labour, components or production.

Giant strides made but still challenges

The good news is that we have made massive strides towards this future in recent years. The foundation technologies delivering Industry 4.0, such as robotics, AI and its deep learning applications, are the building blocks of this future world. However, we should not expect a flick of switch change overnight. There are still some challenges ahead.

We have many of the building blocks already in place but there is still much to do. Some organisations still need to put in place the critical foundation technology infrastructure, such as cloud networks. There are also still some production challenges to overcome. For example, if we look at electronics production, the Surface Mount Technology (SMT) process is already highly digitalised but the Final Assembly, Test and Packaging (FATP) process is currently still more manual than automated. The challenge of automating the assembly of modules or the placement of the final irregular and odd-shaped components on the circuit board still has to be resolved.

As well as the remaining individual production processes to automate, there is the ongoing challenge of integrating all the different elements into one production management system and embedding this software intelligence into the wider supply chain. This is an area where Panasonic, with its PanaCIM smart factory solutions, the Panasonic Gemba Process Innovation and its supply chain understanding with the recent acquisition of Zetes and Blue Yonder, is leading the way. But more of that in part two of this article.

Already advantages today

So, there are still challenges ahead but the great news is that as we quickly complete each building block towards the autonomous factory, manufacturers are still able to take advantage by increasing operational efficiency as each new piece of the ultimate solution becomes available. And already today those benefits are significant.

As we automate each process and production line, we improve operational equipment efficiency. We reduce costs, we increase productivity and we improve important aspects such as material management and traceability across the supply chain.

Many of the largest organisations have already recognised these benefits and are aggressively implementing them to gain a competitive advantage. However, some medium and smaller-sized organisations are still hesitating. They worry that these automated solutions cannot be tailored to their smaller facilities and production lines or the cost of the investment will be too large.

My message to those organisations is to look more closely. The move to the autonomous factory will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. It will be modular and can already be tailored to meet individual needs. I expect it to be 20 years before we reach the point where we have truly reached the autonomous factory and that moment of production equivalency. Even then it may still only be 90% automated but the commercial, social and environmental benefits will be immense. In the meantime, there are still plenty of commercial wins available for organisations as they follow the path towards that goal and reap the rewards of taking each new step on the autonomous factory journey.

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