Taking the theme ‘Moving on to a digital and automated business of the future,’ the fifth WFSGI World Manufacturers Forum kicked off with a glimpse into the future of robots and artificial intelligence.
Tremendous advances over the last 20 to 30 years mean that today, robotics and AI are fusing and moving towards intelligent machines, explained Prof. Dr.-Ing. Sami Haddadin, director of the Institute of Automatic Control at Leibniz University Hannover. An all-important sense of touch also enables them to interact with the wider world and – crucially – solve manufacturing assembly tasks that until recently couldn't be automated.
“We are entering an era where man and machine can create new value in the way that the machine is more of a tool instead of a substitute. We're trying to develop technology that makes our lives easier, and is super-safe and easy to programme and use.
The flexible, affordable and scalable Franka Emika robot can be programmed (even by kids) using apps than can be dragged and dropped into timelines for more complex processes than pick and place.
Benefits include potentially bringing production back to Germany and Europe. And costing less than EUR10,000, it offers affordable commodity automation for SMEs and the private sector. There is also the possibility to “free humans from modern slavery work. We have found a way of automating things that were the worst for mankind.”
Looking to the future: “The more we understand humans the more we understand robotics, and vice versa.” Next on the radar is establishing systems that detect and react like human reflexes, as well as collective learning capabilities between systems. Further ahead, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Haddadin envisages personal robots that prolong the time elderly people can live at home; robots as communication devices (seeing, hearing, touching via an avatar); and for medical applications.
However, he acknowledged that while robotic automation is moving towards flexible objects (like cables in electronics manufacture), flexible clothing remains a major challenge.

The digital enterprise
The disruption of digitalisation could be an advantage for a company – as well as a threat “if you're not fast enough to apply the right measures and processes,” explained Heinz Eisenbeiss, head of marketing factory automation at Siemens.
Speed, flexibility, quality and efficiency are impacting all industries, and in a digital enterprise “we are looking at how to integrate new technologies starting from how you design your product, how you manufacture your product, how you track your product and how you react to changes in the market so you can respond much faster with a changed product or a new product.”
Siemens' approach to integrating and digitalising the entire value chain is to create a 'Digital Twin' that does more than just duplicate the product information. It enables the product, production planning, manufacturing and assembly processes, material flows, and even final performance to all be simulated.
It can help answer questions such as “can I produce this efficiently in existing factories or do I need to make changes?” It can also identify potential problems or bottlenecks, schedule the work operations needed to assemble a product, and generate real-time data that can be used to influence the design of the next generation of that product.
“We will see this a lot in the future, but it is not something you implement in a factory from today to next year; this is a process over five to ten years to get more perfect across the whole workflow,” Eisenbeiss said.


Redesigning the apparel supply chain
“E-commerce is not eating retail; it's crushing your supply chain,” is the view of Rajan Palaniswamy, chairman and CEO at SoftWear Automation. “That's because you want shorter lead-times, you want zero inventory – but your supply chain is not geared for this.”
Instead, the reality is that in 200 years, lead times have got longer, thanks to offshoring for cheaper costs.
So how can your business become uncrushable? he asked. “The solution we propose is to create a local automated supply chain which gives shorter production cycles of 1-3 days (compared with global lead times of 12+ weeks). We call this 'SewLocal'.
SoftWear Automation’s patented technology for a digital T-shirt workline has the potential to produce a T-shirt every 26 seconds using a combination of Sewbots, SewTables and Budgers, with one operator carrying out the work currently done by 10 in a traditional production line. A 60% increase in output is claimed, as is a 10% reduction in CO2 emissions per T-shirt. It also supports the zero inventory goal by enabling a manufacturer to start making a finished product only when an order is received
A local supply chain has to have comparable production or quality with an offshore supply chain, Palaniswamy explained, adding: “To be truly uncrushable you need a balanced supply chain catering to your different customer needs. It's not all local or all global: you need both. You're still going to have a lot of business that still operates the traditional way.
The T-shirt line is set to go into production in 2019; but all the technologies are already being deployed.


Discussion points

Q&A discussions centred on the inability of robotics to replicate the dexterity of the human hand and the inaccuracies in simulating the flexibility and drape of textile materials. There were also concerns at the lack of standardisation in footwear and the difficulties of automating a wide range of different styles and sizes. Cost was another issue raised, along with questions over who should drive the digitalisation process, and the changing role of brands and designers.
Wrapping up Day 1, Edwin Keh, CEO at the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), pointed out: “There will come a day when machines can do a lot of things that we rely on a massive number of workers to do today. We are at an inflection point; this also means that just by working harder at the same things we’re doing today isn’t going to make our business better or more profitable. We will just do more and more for less and less results.
“So we need to think what are the opportunities. Ten years ago we bought a T-shirt, tomorrow we buy a T-shirt; it’s the same T-shirt. Perhaps we’re not keeping up with the lifestyles of our customers; what reason do we give our customers to consume more of our products? The challenge is to consider what we do and how we lead our teams to continue being useful and productive.”

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