Robotex 2018, the World’s biggest robotics festival, held a panel discussion on the future of manufacturing. Experts in the field of robotics, engineering and Industry 4.0, including our CEO Martin Vares, were invited to share their views.
All the people involved in the Robotex panel have slightly different backgrounds which gives an opportunity to see the same topic from a variety of angles. Professors, educators and businessmen all shared a common vision of a more automated future in manufacturing. You can either watch the video or get a comprehensive overview in this post.
The Current State of Affairs in Manufacturing
It is easy to come up with interesting ideas and follow them up to a certain point. The entry barrier is lower than ever with many tools available and understandable for even schoolchildren around the age of 12. Tinkering with Arduino is simple and interesting. Prototyping is not a problem. If you catch the eye of potential investors and have to look for manufacturing options, problems arise.
There is still a great gap in communication between manufacturing and design. The designers do not have the know-how to engineer products suited for mass production. The knowledge is not freely shared but hiring the right people costs. Machine learning and AI could help us out here.
The Advances from 2008 to 2018
Automation is not just a buzzword any more. We can see it implemented around us. This movement has been gaining ground during the last 10 years. Comparing today’s situation to that of 10 years ago, transformation has become easier. Companies have been adapting lean manufacturing techniques and looking for ways to optimise production.
Automating production lines does not require hard to find knowledge any more. Schools teach everything necessary. Experts are around us and we just have to find the right connections. A great obstacle is removed. Now, automated manufacturing allows Europe to compete with Asian production. Eliminating the human factor keeps lowering the production costs.
From Units to a System
Manufacturing used to comprise of different standalone units. The Robotex panel agreed that this will be a memory from the past. Automation was directed towards connecting the production units on a single shop floor.
Now we are implementing an industry-wide system that allows collaboration between companies. The information about available resources should be known to all participants. Only then can we move forwards and share those resources for a more cost-effective production. The barriers have to fall to make this next step.
Pushing Towards Automation
The panel discussed what the movement should look like. Everybody agreed that Asia is still a few steps ahead. Some suggested that Industry 4.0 may be too far ahead for us to even grasp its actual meaning.
“You would be amazed how many manufacturing companies in Estonia alone do not know how many pieces they produce per day,” said Aleksander Tõnnisson of Buildit Accelerator
Enterprise resource planning (ERP), supply chain management and Industry 4.0 is just not a language everyone can speak yet. We cannot push the adoption of new technologies by skipping important steps. The development is gradual. Businesses need the information and education to understand the benefits. No company can evolve without an informed, progressive leadership.
That is hindering our progress. Uninformed people tend to fear changes because they do not understand them. Big visions are scary when the outcome seems unpredictable. People are afraid of lost jobs and the difficulty of retraining.
The Robotex panelists feel that automation can add a lot a value by eliminating the need for filling papers, e-mailing and constant calling. Open flow of information reduces the amount of tedious tasks. The freed resources can be directed to more significant operations. This, in turn, results in happier employees who feel like they contribute in a more meaningful way.
Secondly, the working conditions can be greatly improved. People are still doing many hazardous tasks. And this covers more than dealing with dangerous chemicals. Repetitive movements and unnatural positions lead to a deteriorating health. Robots and exoskeletons can ease our load and relieve this kind of work-related stress.
Audience members asked if governments can provide the necessary infrastructure to support the collaborative future. Highly automated solutions need constant connection with the network. Companies are innovating fast and their needs for well developed digital infrastructure is growing. Tauno Otto, the TalTech professor, brought the example of Starship and Cleveron robots already roaming the streets in Estonia as a proof.
Fractory’s CEO Martin Vares thinks that even if the governments cannot act fast enough on growing demand, the business sector would take over. Economic incentives drive development fast enough that this will not become a bottleneck.
The discussion did not go into details but gave a good overview of the current state of the industry and what the future of manufacturing holds. Education is key to drive out fear as it is mostly caused by ignorance.
The future focuses on free-flowing information that helps with better utilisation of production capabilities. The goal is to break the barriers between prototyping and manufacturing. People’s objective is to kindle their imagination that can then be brought into reality through the use of technology.
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