Factory Reset: The shifting landscape of industrial and manufacturing work

Shutterstock / Chesky
Shutterstock / Chesky
Published On
Jul 15, 2021

A shift is underway as factories reset facilities to provide more flexibility, automation and efficiency to meet the needs of a changing world. Contractors across the country are deploying renovations and upgrades that help facilities stay agile, while also building new kinds of factories for a changing market.

Industrial and manufacturing changes that were already underway have accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in the past year, factories moved further into automation to reduce the demand for manual assembly—offering a safer workplace and fewer disease transmission risks. At the same time, they are striving to meet consumers’ needs with products made faster, delivered directly and sometimes customized, all of which demand a more flexible plant. In addition, factories need to receive and send a constant stream of data, adjust already automated systems and, in some cases, reconfigure assembly lines and floors multiple times a year.

All of these trends have meant that companies are adopting technologies such as the internet of things (IoT)—with wired or wireless sensors—along with robotics that have been making production faster and sometimes more accurate. For instance, with real-time tracking, companies are automating pickup and delivery of supplies at one end of the production cycle and finished products on the other. That means inventory requires less space, and fewer shutdowns occur from a lack of supplies.

At the same time, products are often customized or changed from season to season or year to year, meaning the assembly site itself needs to be modular. These principles are also changing the way manufacturers are wiring their facilities.

It’s not all about new automation either, said Steve Mulder, CPG industry manager, Rockwell Automation, Milwaukee. It’s also part of a push for deployment of more advanced technology within existing automation. One effort is around reducing staffing needs. Today, workers bring new risk for factory owners.

“Coming out of the pandemic, many manufacturers have also seen the operational vulnerability of their current workforce,” Mulder said.

If workers can’t come in, the company suffers losses. This has driven a reevaluation of the return-on-investment parameters that used to justify automation. What might have seemed too costly just a few years ago could now protect a factory from delays or shutdowns in a pandemic. But it’s still a gradual transition.

“I believe there are few ‘fully automated’ manufacturing facilities, so they all lie somewhere along a continuum,” Mulder said. “One push, for sure, is in new automation of currently manually achieved tasks. The other is investment in replacement technology that delivers higher reliability, faster changeover and greater flexibility,” all with the goal of driving greater overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and delivering agility to the manufacturing operation.

Factories also must consider customers’ preferences and the much broader array of channels to market, Mulder said, which is further driving the demand for flexible manufacturing.

“Equipment that can run a wide range of products without sacrificing performance,” along with the capacity to be quickly changed between product runs, which offers a future-proof system. This is enabled with a flexible, modular design for assembly lines, conveyors and work stations.

“The use of advanced mechatronic solutions in machine designs is really exploding,” he said.

Examples include robotics and independent cart technology (such as Rockwell Automation’s iTRAK and MagneMotion products). Curved or straight track sections can be put together in a variety of combinations to meet design and space requirements.

For a post-COVID workforce, Mulder foresees two big staffing changes. First, operational vulnerability, based on workforce availability and safety, has come into focus, he said. By coming out of the crisis, difficulties in filling manufacturing positions presents another problem. Production delays due to an insufficient workforce are not unheard of these days, Mulder said. At the same time, justification for automation is moving away from being a simple “yearly labor savings versus investment cost” calculation, and it now includes considerations for workforce availability and reliability, as well as business continuity.

Manufacturers are installing a host of solutions to combat these problems. Des Plaines, Ill.-based Cloud Packaging Solutions’ CloudTRAC uses independent cart and other servo-based technology to drive 45-second changeovers, instead of 30- to 40-minute changeovers in more traditional systems, while also delivering faster speeds in the same or smaller footprint.

The Variety Case Packer from Aagard, Alexandria, Minn., helps integrate various robotic motions along with Rockwell Automation’s iTRAK independent cart solution. The system is capable of creating a wide range of packages made from up to six different products in various packaging formats and counts.

Looking ahead, Mulder said, “We are going to see the expectations for OEE and reliability continue to drive higher and higher.”

Intelligent solutions will be key to achieving these goals, he added, and the data coming from them will be critical. The ability to easily consume data, and ultimately derive value from it, will be an important focus for factories in the coming years. Whether it is for advanced analytics to optimize machine or line performance, predictive maintenance or the use of system integrators to actively monitor the system performance in daily production, “the leveraging of this data will be key,” Mulder said.

Creating integration

Another advancing change for factories today is movement away from siloed automation technologies—today, they work together. The technologies are converging at a rapid rate, said Alex Shikany, vice president for membership and business intelligence at the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), Ann Arbor, Mich. He described the integration at a May event by Zebra Technologies (Lincolnshire, Ill.) focused on the next generation of industrial automation.

Manufacturers, Shikany said, are looking for robots, vision, motion and software suites with artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning in the background, all on a single server with integration. Additionally, “Mobility is a booming area,” along with robotics, he said, pointing to Boston Dynamics’ mobile robot Stretch, designed for warehouses, with a square mobile base and perception system that uses vision cameras and sensors to operate in its environment safely.

Robotic vision sensor camera system in an intelligent factor | Shutterstock / Asharkyu
Robotic vision sensor camera system in an intelligent factor
Shutterstock / Asharkyu

To enable more of these kinds of integrated solutions while using multiple integrated technologies, camera manufacturers are being asked to make smaller products to be built into existing manufacturing devices or equipment. Gripping technology is also providing flexibility to robotics so they can use tactile and vision data to pick and assemble products.

Zebra Technologies, for instance, provides a family of smart cameras for machine vision and fixed scanning for these kinds of solutions. The device provides track-and-trace as well as product inspection, said Donato Montanari, Zebra’s vice president and general manager for machine vision.

“We power the devices with a single software platform,” dubbed Aurora, he said, while dual ethernet ports help ensure that data gets to the cloud. Zebra sells two different IP ethernet ports so that one links to the PLC or other factory-line machines while the other connects to the cloud or local cloud server.

Navigating future industrial needs

What kind of plants are needed for different products and services is changing with the realities of market shifts and climate change. Leed Electric Inc., Santa Fe Springs, Calif., has been well positioned to provide the pumping stations and water treatment facilities needed to ensure clean water in Southern California. That has meant some shifts in its own model. The company opened in 1979 to serve oil refineries, then shifted to pumping plants, recycling stations and water treatment plants as demand evolved, said Seth Jamali-Dinan, Leed Electric’s CEO.

“Our business is 99% industrial, mainly in wastewater, water treatment and pumping stations,” he said.

The tasks include low-voltage services such as installing automation, as well as standard medium- and high-voltage and terminations. The company supports everything from small $10,000 service calls to $25 million plant upgrades.

Business for Leed Electric has been growing each year as demand for fresh water grows in California and the Southwest. It employs more than 100 specialists—trained industrial electricians, with expertise outside of the more traditional work. One driver for industrial work has been state water-recycling legislation. The California WateReuse Action Plan addresses water challenges by advancing water reuse over the next 30 years. That means deploying more sites where wastewater can be cleaned and reused—whether as clean drinking water or gray water for irrigation.

“The means and methods haven’t changed much in construction,” Jamali-Dinan said. “Bending machines, threading machines remain at the center of operations. However, for these industrial sites, the equipment continues to gets more advanced.”

Automation equipment and PLC systems are advancing, and many can now be controlled remotely.

Traditionally, Leed Electric provides the installation and service, while the system programming is done by a subcontractor specializing in control-systems integration and fabrication.

With all the upgrades in industrial intelligence and flexibility, the tools for contractors are changing, too. More advancements underway in software means change orders are accomplished on tablets, and contractors come to the work site equipped with information that might have required phone calls and paperwork just a decade ago.

For contractors, challenges facing manufacturers demand changes in installations and servicing, but it is also an unprecedented business opportunity for those best poised to meet these latest needs.

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