Manufacturing has come a long way since the 1900s, when row upon row of worker drones pieced together a product as it ambled along the first assembly lines—one repetitive task at a time. In 1962, the industrial robot made its debut when Unimate came online at General Motors.
But the early bots were essentially dumb machines that could only perform a single task. Now, the industry is in the first stages of its next automation breakthrough—using artificial intelligence, or AI, to make production decisions in real time.
A factory is churning out, say, aircraft nacelles, when a sensor spots a defect. That data is fed to a computer in the cloud, which immediately pulls the defective part from the line and orders a replacement. That’s real-time problem solving that can save manufacturers billions of dollars in recalls, repairs and lost business.
“Industrial companies need to become digital to survive,” said GE chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt. “We must turn information into insights and insights into outcomes.”
That approach is more imperative than ever. Consumer and industrial product companies are looking to keep inventories as lean as possible to reduce costs, and want to keep stock on an as-needed basis. Their manufacturing partners and suppliers need to keep up.
Applying AI to manufacturing requires a number of key, foundational technologies and process innovations. A smart factory is a networked factory, in which data from supply chains, design teams, production lines and quality control are linked to form a highly integrated, intelligent creation engine.
“If you don’t have the right sensors and the right data, you can’t even begin to get on this journey…this is where the insight is going to come from, and you cannot build a brilliant factory without insight,” said Bill Ruh, CEO of GE Digital, a $6 billion unit of General Electric.
The ideal intelligent factory, or, as GE calls it, Brilliant Factory, looks something like this. Software, such as GE’s Production Execution Supervisor, captures order data from customers. If, say, an aircraft maker is running low on fuel nozzles, the software can automatically order production on new units. If an entirely new part is needed, the order is dispatched to design teams. Using 3D printing technologies, they can design, prototype and test a new part in hours instead of days or weeks.
The part then goes into production on a line that’s mostly ‘staffed’ by highly intelligent robots. Each stage is monitored by sensors that feed data to AI and analytics software, such as GE’s OEE Performance Analyzer, that reside in the cloud. If a defect is spotted, or a new part needs to enter production, the software orders the part and the process begins anew.
Production Execution Supervisor and OEE Performance Analyzer are part of GE’s Brilliant Manufacturing software-as-a-service (SaaS) suite, which also includes Production Quality Analyzer and Product Genealogy Manager. The suite leverages the company’s Predix connectivity, security and analytics platform and technologies from GE partners, including Cisco and PTC.
One manufacturer that’s had early success integrating AI and other smart factory technologies into its operations is Procter & Gamble, which operates 130 plants worldwide. The consumer products giant is a GE Predix and Brilliant Manufacturing user. The tools have helped the company cut unplanned downtime by 10 percent to 20 percent.
“There’s nothing for us that could be more strategic to the company than to really drive better efficiencies and a better end-to-end operation in our supply chain,” said Jim Fortner, P&G’s vice president for information technology and services.
That’s true not just for P&G but for virtually all manufacturers, in all industries, in an increasingly competitive business. The market for smart manufacturing tools is expected to hit $250 billion by 2018, according to research company TrendForce. “Intelligent production management systems based on emerging technologies and Big Data will spearhead the manufacturing revolution,” TrendForce analysts said.
Paul McDougall is an experienced journalist with a track record of leading successful, tech-focused editorial teams. As deputy international editor for the International Business Times, he helped lead an award-winning team of nine, globally dispersed reporters covering major tech industry news and products. He has also edited and written on tech issues for InformationWeek and Folio magazine.