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Predicting the Future of Smart Factory Maintenance

Industry 4.0 technologies, particularly given their recent price drops, are already shaping up 2018 to be the year where VR, AI and other new and exciting technologies make their way onto the plant floor.

Posted: February 7, 2018

With technologies such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence and smart devices becoming more prevalent, 2018 is set to be the Year of Engineering.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is well underway and, as state-of-the-art technology drops in price, many more industries are benefiting from smart factories. A recent PwC survey found that 72 per cent of companies expect to achieve advanced levels of digitization by 2020, and the reach of these technologies is only set to increase in 2018. In November, the UK government announced that 2018 would be the Year of Engineering. This, coupled with the launch of their Industrial Strategy and Made Smarter Review, has signaled a major vote of confidence in the manufacturing sector as the government pledges to help make them a world leader in this revolution by 2030. With industrial digital technology playing such a significant role in the transformation of this sector, what should manufacturers be investing in?

Virtual reality (VR), which digitally simulates a product or environment, and augmented reality (AR), where the digital product or information is projected onto a real-world background, have traditionally been consumer-focused applications aimed mostly at gamers. However, with equipment such as the Microsoft HoloLens now being aimed purely at business applications, this is changing. Virtual reality can provide facilities maintenance with a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in their projects, develop designs more clearly prior to beginning construction work, and reduce mistakes.

Watch for virtual reality to become prominent during the design of a facility, and it could even have applications for building information modelling (BIM). Inputting computer aided design (CAD) files into a VR application can allow the designer, engineer and client move around the product and facility, viewing it under a different light without the need to produce expensive prototypes. VR also has the potential to revolutionize training, particularly when working in hazardous environments. Engineers can explore and mange a range of scenarios without any risk to themselves or equipment.

Maintenance is where augmented reality comes into its own. AR can instantly provide important information to maintenance engineers wearing AR headsets, while allowing them to keep their hands free. For example, when combined with remote monitoring and dashboard user interfaces, the status of a drive or motor control center can be visualized next to the system in question. This type of technology is already being employed by manufacturers with multiple sites, allowing for the comparison of key performance indicators (KPIs) between plants, learning from one-another to improve process efficiency and asset lifespan. Similarly, when combined with a risk-based maintenance schedule, such as our BRISK, each piece of machinery can be color-coded according to the risk it poses to the plant.

Machine learning is a concept that has been around for decades, where the computer doesn’t rely on rule-based programming, but instead operates using algorithms that can adapt and learn from data. Closely related to this is artificial intelligence (AI), a branch of computer science aiming to build machines capable of intelligent behavior. One of the major benefits of AI is advanced data analysis, where data is collected, stored and analyzed automatically. Dependent on the results of the analysis, processes can be automatically altered, increasing productivity, reducing costs or even preventing production downtime. Combined with trend prediction and predictive maintenance schemes, efficiency and yield rates can be greatly increased across a manufacturing plant.

Legacy systems were traditionally designed to operate in isolation and are often unable to connect to the wider network and the Internet. However, since the advent of Industry 4.0, many plant managers are keen to connect systems and take advantage of the benefits of the Internet of Things (IoT), including enhanced data collection, interpretation and use. The answer for many is to retrofit their systems to enable IoT capabilities: smart sensors, data analysis systems and connectivity to the IoT are just some of the benefits promised by the range of retrofitting options on the market. The popularity of retrofitting existing equipment with these technologies using a maintenance budget is only going to increase. As equipment wears and requires replacement, the best choice for many will be a smart sensing motor or motor control center which can connect to the IoT.

The introduction of Industry 4.0 technologies has left no stone or industry untouched over the past few years, particularly given recent price drops. This year is already shaping up to be the year where new and exciting technologies, such as VR and AI, make their way onto the plant floor, making it truly a factory of the future.

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