LAWRENCE, Kan.—The manufacturing sector very quickly could start to look like something out of a science fiction movie: an array of robots making decisions independently of humans.
Though, hopefully, without the Armageddon parts.
Automation and machine learning both are increasing significantly throughout manufacturing. Spencer Bagan, national sales and marketing manager at MonTech, outlined how those concepts evolving in tandem one day could give way to the smart factory—a fully automated manufacturing operation—at HF Mixing Group's International Mixing Seminar held recently in Lawrence.
"It's a really exciting time for us," Bagan said. "I find myself in lockstep with many other tech leaders in the industry in that we are on the verge of another industrial revolution. And that revolution is the adaptation of automation technology through artificial intelligence, hardware automation and software automation to give birth to the smart factory."
Bagan said that smart manufacturing is the cornerstone of the fourth industrial revolution, which combines automation and robotics with the introduction of artificial intelligence, data technologies and cloud computing.
The idea is to take all the manufacturing principles developed since the 1700s, or the first industrial revolution, through the 2000s and multiply them by 100, then in five years multiply that by 1,000. With artificial intelligence tied to hardware and software automation, those kinds of speeds are possible, he said.
The goal of Manufacturing 4.0 is to have the factory run itself, but that requires deep data mining—both supervised and unsupervised—so machines can evolve independently. Bagan said this process defines a starting point and a goal, the hardware then figures it out in between.
For instance: A manufacturer would take a machine and tell it to successfully drink a glass of water. The machine, with no knowledge, then has to figure out how to pick up the glass, move it to the appropriate spot, tilt the glass without spilling or dropping it, consume the liquid and return the glass to its original point without damage.
"The desire for perfecting a process has not stopped," Bagan said. "It has become leaner, more sustainable and more efficient ever since the birth of the factory system. Most of us are here today to see what's new, so we know this process of perfection is not stopping and it won't stop because the competition in the world is getting tougher."
Companies and countries already are committing billions toward Manufacturing 4.0. Bagan said the U.S. alone invested $3 billion toward artificial intelligence development. He did not have a global figure, but estimated that it was "much higher than $3 billion."
He added that labor productivity is set to increase by as much as 40 percent as more automation is introduced into manufacturing sites, and by 2020, about 1.7 million industrial robots will be introduced into the global marketplace.
Germany, Japan and South Korea all are pushing millions of dollars in the development and scalability of these technologies so it can work with the small factory all the way up to the big global players. Bagan said South Korea already has the largest density of robots to humans in manufacturing, estimating it to be about a one to 10 ratio.
"South Korea has a very admirable goal," Bagan said. "They want 30,000 smart manufacturing facilities operational by 2030."
China probably is the most ambitious. Bagan said it aspires to use Manufacturing 4.0 to become one of the strongest and innovative nations. He added that the most innovative manufacturing nations are divided into three tiers—the U.S. in the first; Germany and Japan in the second; and the United Kingdom, France, South Korea and China in the third.
Bagan said China's goal is to move into the second tier by 2025 and lead it by 2035. By 2049, it aims to be in the same tier as the U.S.
"There are a lot of countries pushing these initiatives because they know if they don't do this they're going to fall behind," Bagan said.