The automation of manufacturing has a hardware problem. That might come as a surprise to many in the industry, who have seen the evolution from largely manual assembly lines to advanced robotics accelerate in recent years. But these advances, however great, ultimately remain inflexible. As a result, manufacturers often cannot adapt to changes in products or disruptions to their supply chain very quickly—or easily.
Industry 4.0 did introduce some flexibility through the large-scale digitization of manual workflows, and by providing manufacturers access to larger quantities of data. While these advances are clearly valuable, they are still tied to complex hardware systems typically used in automation. The best data set won’t solve for the fact that an automated line often takes many months and sometimes more than a year to configure and deploy, that it needs a highly technical set of automation engineers to build and maintain the line, and that it still relies on manual labor for certain assembly operations.
The imperative for advancing modern manufacturing is to shift from focusing on hardware to embracing more of a software-driven approach. This shift will have two significant benefits that are already apparent today: speeding automation set up and simplifying management of deployed automation systems.
Cutting down configuration time
With software-defined manufacturing, a layer of software is introduced into operations that can simplify configuration, because manufacturers are not dealing directly with the automation hardware. Instead, this software layer provides an opportunity to translate the complexity inherent in automation into a more intuitive interface for setting up the actual relationships between machines.
For example, with software, users can directly select a function from a list of system devices and add in the parameters. Instead of configuring a conveyor system’s motor by inputting required voltage, pulse rates, and so forth, the user can simply command the conveyor to “load.” All of the logic is already encapsulated in declarative constructs.
The shift to software-defined manufacturing can save months in the initial configuration of automation hardware. The investment in automation, however, does not end when the line is deployed and goes through the initial ramp up. During its life, there are multiple opportunities to make corrections or adjustments. Those opportunities are where software continues to offer another leap in productivity and improve the payback of that initial investment.
Simplifying automation management
Manufacturers have had to rely on their own trained controls engineers or third-party system integrators whenever an automated line needed an adjustment—halting production and increasing downtime, while also introducing additional costs. These technical experts are usually the most familiar with the complex automation hardware on the manufacturing floor. Unfortunately, they can also be a scarce commodity.
When software is able to oversee automation, it can help optimize production operations by introducing data-driven best practices and contextual insights to better inform people on the production line. Coupled with low/no-code workflows, these will democratize decision-making processes and result in greater adoption of automation. An operator on the factory floor with little automation experience, or even a new employee, suddenly gains the ability to make adjustments on the assembly line, such as reconfiguring assembly instructions or optimizing device settings.
These new capabilities will be essential for making manufacturing more flexible while lowering operational costs. In addition, with software overseeing automation, each worker becomes more valuable as they can help reconfigure equipment without excessive downtime and even re-purpose equipment to extend its useful life.
Automation made for software-defined manufacturing
Manufacturing has always relied on technological advances to improve, but it is easy for companies to default to incremental changes rather than embrace a new approach. While the industry has continued to make small gains in productivity and efficiency, hardware is (by its nature) limiting, and will ultimately lead to stagnation. With software-defined manufacturing, a whole new industrial revolution is made possible.
Abhishek Pani is chief product officer with Bright Machines