Smart Factory Expo brings together companies from across Europe to showcase the latest developments in technology: from Cybersecurity to Additive Manufacturing, all the technologies involved in Industry 4.0 can be found here. As well as finding the giants of the industry – Siemens, PTC and Autodesk, to name a few – start up businesses developing very innovative and targeted technologies can also be found at the Expo (along “Innovation Alley”). Ultimately, this was a fantastic event to get some fresh ideas on how data can drive continuous improvement in a business, and to build contacts to help with our project.
My aim with this blog post is to share some of the great ideas and technologies we found at the event. So, here are our highlights of Smart Factory Expo 2019.
1. Laser Engraved Bar Codes
We saw a machine that provided laser engraving of plastic and metal parts traveling along a conveyor line. Whilst engraving parts with a barcode to track their progress through a factory is not a new idea, the advent of the Smart Factory means this method of tracking will allow for much faster improvements in part quality and the tracking of faults throughout a production line as the part is tracked at each stage of the production process. The benefit with this machine is that the part being barcoded (in this case pen) does not have to stop moving whilst it is engraved.
2. Generative Design
The generative designs can then be manually refined or immediately put into production, often leading to very visually distinct and organic looking outputs, such as the as the centrepiece of the display at the Expo – the moon lander.
3. Pump Fault Tracking with the Internet of Things
4. Remote Control Robotics
Much of what was on show at the Expo focused on automation and a reduction of human input. In contrast to this, one exhibit highlighted the use of technology and data to augment human-controlled processes. We were lucky enough to be able to try a remotely controlled robotic arm utilising haptic feedback technology (technology that can create the sensation of touch) in order to give human operators a greater sense of control by providing tactile sensations in response to the arms movements and collisions. Though the particular system is still in the early stages of its development, it is already showing potential for those tasks too dangerous for humans to perform unaided but that still require a human touch.
5. The Value of Data
One of the key messages we heard throughout our visit was about the value of data and how it provides improvements within factories. A key message is that data on its own is not valuable: it has to have context to act as a useful resource. Thus, when selecting the data to log from factory systems, it is important to select parameters that provide additional context to the problem and give deeper insight into how a system is performing. In short, more data doesn’t necessarily mean more value.
6. Machine Learning and AI
Machine learning and AI have become buzzwords around expos of late. Whilst they are definitely a very valuable tool in the analysis and application of data, there is a tendency to assume that they are the default technologies to use with data once it has been collected. In reality, most applications can be implemented with much simpler solutions (such as numerical thresholds and email notifications) rather than having a system automatically reacting in the background. It is important not to overcomplicate solutions as this can detract from their usefulness once deployed.
Our visit to the Smart Factory Expo was a fantastic experience and we walked away feeling more knowledgeable about the industry's current direction. We now understand that data must have context in order to provide value to a project or system. Furthermore, it is important to only use the technology required to provide a good solution to a problem, added complexity (for example Machine Learning and AI) does not necessarily mean added performance. Additionally, we made some new contacts to help us with our project throughout the day. In particular, a big thank you goes to Ceri Batcheldor (Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Sheffield, and SELA Board Member) and Alex Kelly (IT Manager at Tinsley Bridge) for helping us during our visit to the Expo and introducing us to some useful new contacts. I can definitely recommend a visit to next year’s Expo and I hope to visit again in the future.