August 29, 2017      

Manufacturing as we know it is changing more quickly than ever. We’re in the midst of a perfect storm of technological opportunity within the industry, with increased demand for manufactured goods, a reduced workforce of available labor to meet that need, and an influx of exciting new smart manufacturing advancements that are making robots more affordable and flexible than ever before.

That said, with all the 21st century technology advancements being introduced throughout the shop floor, most manufacturing processes are still being run by 20th century machines. And it’s easy to see why. Quite simply, they work – and the time and cost implications of replacing them are substantial.

Barriers to Smart Manufacturing

Cloud computing and IoT have been buzz words in the technology arena for years, and they’ve recently become popularized by discussions on smart manufacturing in the industrial space as well. Yet for most companies, they remain nothing more than futuristic concepts, because introducing these technologies on the factory floor typically requires significant changes to their current equipment, staff and processes. But that limitation is changing, thanks to a much simpler approach than you might think.

The concept of smart manufacturing encompasses many things, but it’s founded in the principle of increasing production flexibility and responsiveness to meet today’s growing need for on-demand manufacturing. A key aspect of enabling smart manufacturing is the ability to increase connectivity – between technologies, processes and people. But establishing that connectivity has been, to this point, a limiting factor for most companies looking to implement it in the short term.

Historically, most discussions about smart manufacturing begin with the assumption that production machines are either replaced altogether or retrofitted in some way that enables them to be connected – either via additional sensors, an external controller, or some other form of integration. Once connected, machines then need some sort of common “language” that allows those connections to be meaningful – to each other and to their operators.

Image: tend.ai

Tremendous amounts of time and development dollars have been devoted to the pursuit of these concepts. We are clearly making exciting progress toward that goal, but much still needs to be done before most companies — particularly small and midsize businesses — are able to implement a practical smart manufacturing solution, given the high cost and extensive integration required for most new or retrofitted systems.

A New Model for Smart Manufacturing

About two years ago, I asked myself (and a few close colleagues in the cloud computing space) some simple questions about smart manufacturing, that would ultimately become the basis for Tend, the cloud robotics company we founded last year. Specifically:

1) Why do machines need to be physically connected in order to interface with them?

2) Is there a way for companies to pull data from their robots, machines and production processes without requiring a common communications protocol?

3) Can we create a simpler path forward that would allow companies of all sizes to leverage smart manufacturing / IIoT principles today, rather than at some undetermined time in the future when all machines and data become connected and ubiquitous?

The answers to those questions led us to develop a smart cloud robotics platform that leveraged simple and readily available tools to deliver meaningful connectivity and insight to plant floor technologies and processes.

  • Vision – we see vision as the “universal sensor”. Using any basic web camera, we can allow robots to interact with machines in the way they were designed to interact with humans – by reading their HMI screens and monitoring other visual status cues (such as indicator lights). This approach eliminates the need for robot to machine integration and common communications platforms that make smart manufacturing prohibitive for many companies.
  • Cloud robotics – we can quickly establish a secure connection between robots and operators through the cloud. This allows plant floor personnel and manufacturing leaders to have direct and constant access to alerts, robot logs, job stats and more. When all that data is aggregated and accessible via a simple app, people have access to their production health whenever they need it – around the clock and around the world.
  • SaaS delivery – the Software as a Service (SaaS) model has completely changed how most enterprise software systems are deployed and maintained today. With simple, consistent pricing and no setup or equipment costs, customers are typically able to streamline their budget approval process and scale their solution as needed.

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Is it the realization of IIoT and Industry 4.0 in their entirety? Of course not. But as we all look forward to the day when machines and data are seamlessly connected, it’s a way for manufacturers to immediately begin leveraging plant floor data to their advantage. Or as we like to put it, a way to make smart manufacturing simple.

I hope you’ll join me at RoboBusiness on Thursday, September 28, as I lead a panel discussion where we’ll be discussing these and other important concepts shaping manufacturing today: “What Do Big Data, IoT and the Cloud Mean for Robotics Use?”