Running a factory that perfects itself would seem to be the ideal dream of a manufacturing operations manager. What could be better than having automated systems that learn from their mistakes and continually improve?
Imagine quality soaring to new levels, and just-in-time production becoming invariable. Productivity, reliability and efficiency would reach previously unattainable heights, leading to higher profits and growth.
Remarkably, the operations manager’s dream is about to come true, at least to some extent. Machines that learn to improve their own performance are becoming the basis of advanced manufacturing, thanks to innovative semiconductor technology and internet-based artificial intelligence (AI). Today, industrial sensors are raising the available information to the next level by communicating a mushrooming volume of data to the internet cloud, where it is collected to be analyzed using AI techniques. Based on the findings, instructions can be fed back to automated tools such as robots and process control systems to steadily improve their functioning.
Such factory-wide machine learning depends on massive data storage and computation within the cloud. It also requires distributed intelligence and wired and wireless communications in numerous sensors and automated systems on the factory floor and in on-site control centers. If cloud-based AI and factory control centers are the brains of the operation, then sensors are the eyes and ears, and robots and other automated systems are the arms and legs. With feedback from the eyes and ears, and clever insight from the brains, the arms and legs can be trained to perform complex operations more precisely and respond appropriately to varying conditions.
The results are higher quality, greater productivity, improved energy efficiency, and greater safety for the human workers who train, maintain and collaborate with the machines in the production process.
Machine learning is an important component of contemporary factory automation based on a web of distributed sensing, communications and control intelligence. Today’s progress in manufacturing is so marked that it has been dubbed Industry 4.0 (following the previous big advances of steam power, the assembly line and early automation). Innovation in a number of fields, not least of these the underlying semiconductor technology developed by Texas Instruments (TI), provides the momentum for Industry 4.0 and its successes in productivity, efficiency, precision, flexibility and safety.