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Five uses cases for manufacturing a truly connected industry

Jan. 15, 2021

From autonomous mobile robots to asset condition monitoring.

Ericsson's Thomas Norén

According to the World Bank, manufacturing accounts for roughly 17% of the world's gross domestic product (GDP), making it a critical sector of our global economy. From microbreweries to vehicle-assembly lines to aerospace facilities; the manufacturing industry is vast and varied.

Today, there is a seismic shift happening as enterprises advance towards Industry 4.0 to modernize and remain competitive. It is no secret customers are increasingly expecting faster delivery, more customized products and companies that meet changing demands. That’s a tall order for facilities that are still operating with inflexible legacy equipment and have not yet adapted to the industry’s changing landscape.  

Private cellular networks offer a crucial tool for manufacturers gearing up for Industry 4.0. The technology will play a critical role in solving falling productivity, supply chain disruptions, the skills gap and customers’ expectations for customization. Specifically, it will usher in five high-value use cases that address the most imminent points in the industry.

Individually, these use cases all create a healthy return on investment (ROI) and streamline operations for factory owners. However, when all five are deployed and working together, their combined ROI will reach 116% by year five. It will also create a system that is more agile, reliable and efficient.

The five uses cases are as follows:

Autonomous mobile robot (AMR)

AMRs are what we call the workhorse of smart factories. Used for real-time production chain automation, AMRs can move efficiently around the production floor, conduct quality inspections and move materials—all without the use of magnetic strips or sensors for guidance. In fact, with private cellular networks in place, AMRs can move freely in facilities with a high density of connected devices and through environments that may pose a risk to workers.

For those manufactures just getting started on their Industry 4.0 transformations, AMRs are a good place to start as they offer the most benefits. They’re also the most mature of the five uses cases.

Collaborative robots (cobots)

Cobots are next in the toolbox and are increasing in use. These robots work side-by-side with operators to conduct manufacturing tasks including operational work, drilling or assembly. They also automate quality inspections of products that are still on the production line, offering factory owners a new set of eyes to improve quality and satisfaction, especially as customers strive for zero defects. Essentially, Cobots remove the burden that comes with repetitive, concentration-intense and sometimes high-risk tasks.

Augmented reality (AR)

AR can make an enormous difference in quality inspections, an area facing serious challenges. Today, most inspections are done manually even though the majority of workers lack the skills and experience needed to compare product specifications. Those that are qualified are expected to retire in the next five years, so AR can help alleviate the loss of skilled workers. It can also provide the visualizations needed to significantly reduce human errors and the amount of time spent in uncomfortable positions while inspecting products. This includes moving back and forth between the equipment and the manual or screen. AR can also enable service experts to support local inspectors remotely, reducing their travel-related CO2 impact by 50%.

Asset condition monitoring

As one of the best tools for maintaining machines, asset condition monitoring keeps equipment in good shape through predictive maintenance, while preventing over-maintenance and the premature replacement of parts. As a result, manufacturers can reduce the number of spare parts required by 10% and workers can cut down on the amount of repetitive work they would normally have to do. This not only optimizes operations and ensures facilities are not experiencing downtime due to insufficient maintenance, but also allows manufacturers to keep machines running for a longer period. 

Digital twins

As the last tools in the box, digital twins offer manufacturers a plan for the future through “what if” scenarios. The resource grants them the ability to create a virtual model or digital representation of an asset or a particular aspect of an operation that can be used to determine how to streamline the production environment without physically changing any processes. A digital twin of an asset or even an entire facility can produce useable insights for both process and factory, giving manufacturers full control to implement change and foster a fully integrated view of an asset throughout its lifecycle. This innovative tool increases efficiently, agility and quality while reducing development costs and time to market.

A leap forward to smart manufacturing

With the current pandemic disrupting manufacturing operations and supply logistics, gearing up for Industry 4.0 is more prevalent than ever before. Manufacturers that leverage the cooperative nature of the five use cases and deploy them all together can start to see a positive ROI within two years. The benefits are not only financial but social and environmental as well. Through smart manufacturing, industry leaders can expect a substantial triple bottom line that includes improved safety for workers and a more responsible environmental impact through reduced scrap and emissions. 

Thomas Norén is head of dedicated networks at Ericsson