The Industry 4.0 Revolution

This article appeared in the Sep/Oct 2023 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.

As Industry 4.0 technologies continue to revolutionize manufacturing and now that artificial intelligence is at the forefront of upcoming change, manufacturers have found themselves in a position where they can innovate while enhancing efficiency in their workplaces.

When coupled with human expertise, automation and AI may change manufacturing in countless ways.

“The question manufacturing leaders are asking themselves is, ‘How do I surf the wave and not get crashed by it?’ because the wave is destructive, but it’s also super fun if you know how to ride it,” says Tom Kelly, Executive Director and CEO of Troy-based Automation Alley.

Advancements in Automation and Additive Manufacturing

Of the many advancements in automation, collaborative robots (cobots) seem to be taking the stage on the manufacturing floor.

Ingrid Tighe, President of the Plymouth-based Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center, says that the manufacturing industry nationwide still has not recovered 35 percent of the workers lost during the pandemic.

“If we can identify some of those jobs that no one wants, we might be able to put a robot or cobot in those roles to alleviate the strain,” Tighe says. “That then would allow employers to put employees in jobs that are more interesting and fulfilling and that have the potential for future growth.”

Rapid Robotics in Novi, for instance, has created an automated, vision-enabled palletizing solution for customers.

“It’s built on AI foundation software that allows it to learn and improve with every pick it makes,” says Steve Barsanti, Vice President of Customer Operations for Rapid Robotics.

Rapid Robotics has standard AI-driven software that can meet most customers’ needs, so the company can send the technology to customers quickly with only minor customization.

Along with providing an advanced customer solution, their technology can address labor shortages, he says.

“I haven’t been to a factory that doesn’t have a ‘Now Hiring’ sign on the door,” Barsanti says. “The faster we are able to get in and help them automate, the better. The modern automation that exists today is becoming much more flexible and robust than the traditional automation that existed for the last 20 years, and that’s because of vision and AI.”

Tighe says that many manufacturers are calling MMTC for assistance with software systems. She says additive manufacturing (otherwise known as 3D printing), cobots and robots are increasingly popular and that these technologies could help manufacturers save money.

“They can reduce their downtime. They can reduce waste on the line. They’re also improving and increasing output,” Tighe says. “A 3D printer, for instance, can run overnight without a person there. It gives you the ability and flexibility to improve the efficiencies in your company, which, in turn, reduces some of your expenses.”

Geoffrey Dawson, Director of Sales for the Michigan Industrial Region for FANUC, says simplicity and ease of use are key factors in their company’s development decisions. With FANUC’s technology, you can teach the robot through a tablet using an icon-based interface, he says, as opposed to needing traditional programming that involved highly involved coding and technical expertise.

“You can actually teach paths for the robot by manually moving it through a series of points,” Dawson adds.

Additionally, cobots can manage repetitive tasks while humans oversee the robots’ work, allowing them to grow their own knowledge base. Instead of a welder, for instance, being anchored down at one station, the robot can do the work while the welder oversees progress at multiple stations.

“The employee becomes kind of a manager of technology,” Dawson says.

The Growth of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

Artificial intelligence seems to be all that people are talking about these days, in the manufacturing industry and beyond — and for good reason.

“AI can potentially be the most disruptive force that manufacturers have ever seen in their lifetimes,” Kelly says.

He predicts that process will become better optimized, quality will improve and inventory will be more manageable and predictable, and that AI may also reduce energy-related expenses and waste.

“It can understand what energy is being used through the plant and what could be done to optimize that, which can mean huge savings for a manufacturer,” Kelly adds. “Even if you’re small, you’re consuming tons of energy all the time. AI will help you uncover where the waste is when it comes to energy consumption.”

However, AI in its current form is relatively new, so everyone is still in the learning phase, Tighe says.

“The issue is that it may take a while for people, culturally, to get comfortable with how you interact with AI, how you ask questions, how you do it in a way where your employees aren’t giving up company secrets to this ‘technology in the Cloud,’” Kelly says. “It’s both a blessing and a curse that we’ve invented this.”

Greater efficiency, more connected software and more comprehensive data analytics are among the possible benefits of advanced AI.

Vision systems enable the robot to learn as it takes and analyzes images, Dawson says, which offers improved accuracy, reliability and efficiency.

“We do a lot of predictive analytics with AI,” Dawson says. “We know what the baseline is, and then the robot monitors it based on the machine learning algorithm. If an issue comes up and we see an anomaly, we can predict it way ahead of time. We can provide a new part to repair the robot before any issues occur, and customers won’t have downtime.”

Barsanti also notes that software repairs and optimizations are more efficient due to AI and vision systems.

“Instead of having to call system integrators back out to reprogram the robot, our vision system allows for that flexibility without any intervention,” he says, adding that the Cloud connectivity allows them to see what’s happening in the software remotely. “That allows us to diagnose problems without going on site and proactively resolve problems before they have an impact.”

Barsanti and Dawson see the future of the manufacturing industry in Michigan headed in that direction overall.

“You’re going to continue to see more and more vision-based solutions,” Barsanti says. “You’re also seeing a lot more Cloud connectivity. The whole world is becoming Cloud-connected, and robots are no exception.”

Tighe adds that when software systems track assembly line analytics, manufacturers can aggregate that data to recognize patterns, and those resources continue to grow as technology advances.

“This gives leaders and managers better visibility on the operational efficiency of the assembly line and equipment,” Tighe says. “It helps you start making better business decisions and evaluate if you’re getting a good ROI. It gives you visibility into your plant and operations that you might not have otherwise.”

The Future of Manufacturing in the Industry 4.0 Era

Barsanti, Dawson and Kelly offer similar advice for manufacturers who want to advance their solutions but don’t know where to begin. Start small and give easy, repetitive work to the robots while leaving the more challenging tasks for humans who can think for themselves.

“Don’t always try to automate the biggest problems,” Barsanti says, because those complex problems require innovative thought that only humans can provide.

“There’s no arguing that humans are better. Robots are cheaper, but in more challenging roles, manual labor is best. Robots are better for simple tasks. Where people go wrong is with these big goals of automating everything all at once. It’s overwhelming from a cost perspective, and it never gets done.”

Barsanti adds, “Have that vision, have that North Star, but start with one robot first,” he says. “There is this automation utopia that I’m sure everyone wants, but the reality is you need to ease into it.”

Some manufacturers are upgrading existing equipment by doing things like integrating AI cameras and software solutions. Although that’s a great option, Kelly predicts it still might not be enough because things are expected to change drastically and quickly.

He says manufacturers should instead pay attention to three specific areas, which he calls game-changers:

  • Software (artificial intelligence)
  • Additive manufacturing (3D printing)
  • Distributed manufacturing (robots).

Along those lines, Kelly also predicts that the U.S. is going to shift from aggregated manufacturing to distributed manufacturing.

“Manufacturing is going to move from ‘I make a lot of something in one central place’ to ‘I make exactly what the market or the customer wants in a lot of places,’” he says.

And, if that does happen, it would be great for America because dependence on other countries for high-quantity shipments would be reduced, he says.

“Now, we can actually be in a place where items are both ‘made’ and ‘bought’ in the same town,” Kelly says.

When it comes to the Industry 4.0 revolution, we’ve only just begun. There’s likely much more to come, and manufacturers who keep their eyes on these trends may find themselves growing right along with the industry.

Have a manufacturing story to tell? E-mail