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Manufacturers have been implementing Industry 4.0 technologies such as artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and virtual and augmented reality over the past 10 years. But now these technologies are evolving, becoming more integrated with one another, and are being adopted at an accelerated pace – in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because of changing consumer behaviors. BizTimes Milwaukee reporter Brandon Anderegg recently spoke with David Vasko, director of advanced technology for Rockwell Automation, about how these technologies are expanding what humans can accomplish in manufacturing.
What are a few of the most exciting technologies in manufacturing and what do they allow companies to achieve?
Vasko: “What we’re actually able to do with virtual reality – and people may not realize this – we’re able to create a complete model of a factory before it’s ever built. You put a headset on and you’re able to see it and simulate the operation before it’s ever built. We can actually ensure we’re able to produce product at the speed we want to produce that product when it starts up. We can train operators on how to use it before it ever starts up. They’re actually going through different scenarios and training exercises. Sometimes things may be hazardous, and you can train people in this environment before they get there.
“There’s many times a factory is built and (you discover) there’s not enough room for the worker, or ergonomic problems. You can test out those things ahead of time. We have a software package … which allows us to create those environments. Those environments have the visual aspect, but you can actually back them with the control and operational aspects. You can add machine learning or AI onto that for flow optimization. It sounds weird, but in some systems, you need to slow things down to speed things up or you have a bottleneck. Only these tools can help you see that.”
“With AR, you still see through the device, but your world is augmented with virtual reality pieces. If I walk up to a piece of equipment, I can see the equipment, use artificial intelligence that recognizes the equipment, and if you’re troubleshooting it, it will actually provide troubleshooting instructions. Maybe someone has done this 100 times and they just need a checklist to go through. Or maybe it’s the first time, and now we’re pushing video training of how to do this repair. Or maybe the person feels more comfortable having someone walk them through it and now they have an expert that is able to (virtually) see the equipment and (virtually) draw on the equipment (to explain) what or how to do things. That’s technology that’s really driving down cost and increasing productivity and uptime for equipment.”
“Manufacturing companies have always had large data sets. We have a customer who has 20 petabytes of data. If you were to turn that into an Mp3, one petabyte would be 2,000 years of listening to music – an absolutely huge amount of data. Data has always been there in manufacturing, but really what our customers are looking for now is more of the contextualization. Actionable information. Looking at what’s actually happening, what is that going to tell me? Is my motor going to fail? Can I run my plant faster? People are realizing that the analysis needs to be done in different places. In the cloud, or on the premises.”
“I’m more excited about the mashups. If I have 5G or WiFi, now I can take my wireless headsets, be it AR or VR, and connect them together more. I can have access to computers in the cloud that give me significant processing power. I can add machine learning or AI to help identify things through pattern matching and help me solve things. People are fantastic problems solvers, but if I can give them more information, more context and more experience about what’s happened in the past, they’re all the more productive.”
It’s one thing for large manufacturers to implement new technology, but how can small and medium-sized companies take advantage of them?
“With our supply chains, every large manufacturer relies on a lot of medium and small manufacturers to help fill the supply chain. It’s important to push these technologies to those organizations and help them out. There are some good programs. The Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing & Productivity: They take best practices, and they help small and medium manufacturers to adopt these practices. Manufacturers actually pay to be part of it, but the return on investment there is absolutely huge. There are so many technologies out there and they want to know what (they) should be using today. This provides them with the information they need, how to apply it and best practices. Part of it is seeing how (technologies) have been applied. Look for applications that are similar to the problems you’re trying to solve and go from there. If you’re not sure, I really encourage people to seek outside advice.”