Manufacturing Disrupted: Embracing the Digital Imperative

The Globe and Mail recently hosted a panel called "Manufacturing Disrupted: Embracing the Digital Imperative". Moderated by the newspaper's senior business writer Rita Trichur, featured manufacturing and technology leaders. The event was kicked off with an interview with keynote speaker, Christy Michalak, Director of Advanced Manufacturing Development Programs with Next Generation Manufacturing (NGen); followed by a panel discussion with Irene Sterian, President and CEO of REMAP Network, Peter Coffee, Vice-President of Strategic Research with Salesforce, Marylin Ma, CEO of AIXEL, and Jason Falbo, Chief Technology Officer with Mircom Group of Companies.

These manufacturing leaders provided attendees with an in-depth discussion of why and how Canadian companies can embrace digital tools, such as artificial intelligence and automation, to stay competitive in the global marketplace.

Getting started in advanced technologies

Completely changing the way you've been doing things for years might seem like a daunting task. However, assessing how you can adopt digital manufacturing and incorporating AI creates a substantial internal paradigm shift that focuses on creating better quality, export-ready products in safer environments with the utmost efficiency.

The average Canadian small-medium enterprise (SME) has approximately 10 to 100 employees and approximately $690,000 in annual revenues. SMEs have many barriers to entry from calculating return on investment to understanding where to source talent. There are some practical ways to get started: hardware, software and AI.

Start with hardware by putting sensors on your machines and connecting the machines to sensors to collect data. The second step is software, which really means start collecting the data from one machine and build on that by collecting data from many machines to an entire line and then other systems in your company. Once you have that data, you can get into AI. But unless you have good data and you have clean data, you can't get into it and start to make informed decisions and better decisions to gain better flexibility in your company.

How can we improve technology adoption?

Although Canada is traditionally very good at technology and generating research and development, it falls short on technology adoption. The challenge lies in matching the right technology with the right company to begin the journey to becoming a more efficient manufacturing company.

Naturally, manufacturers have concerns about the investment required to transform their operations to advanced technology. One way for companies to get started is to use the free online assessment tools that help you pinpoint where you are on your digital transformation journey. They can also give a sense of where to start, whether it's putting sensors on machines, connecting a line, or designing a digital product that can be easily connected with the manufacturing facility.

Many manufacturers are finding that adopting technology helps them answer the challenge of skilled tradespeople aging out. For example, the average age for a welder right now is 55, and there are few entrants into the profession. It's very hard to attract young welders for the existing job. But now, with something like Novarc’s novel spool welding robot (SWR) the welder is augmented with computer screen with the ability to monitor the quality of the weld using machine vision and AI. By embracing robotics, a company will be creating high-quality jobs that will attract the next generation of workers.

Does automation create more jobs than it replaces?

Companies can now have employees monitoring an onsite or remote screen that can be used to oversee and manage all of the points of inspections across all production lines across all of your facilities. Instead of having rows of people on the production floor, you'll have them in quality control capacities monitoring the robots' work.

Cobots, like Novarc Technologies SWR, make room for more meaningful work. The use of robots and has increased productivity, reduced cost, and workplace fatigue as well as helped to create safer working environments in industries like automation and manufacturing.  Cobot technology opens up new opportunities in hardware design, sensors and actuators, efficient information processing, video processing, planning, and multiple fields from artificial intelligence landscapes, along with technologies that ensure safety, predictability, and security.  

Another example is Apera’s AI-powered 4D vision solution for fast industrial robotic automation. Apera is leveraging low cost vision systems to inspect automotive parts on the manufacturing line. Ideally, a part is placed on a conveyor belt, the system starts inspecting it and learns based on the parts that were put down. It's being used right now in the automotive industry by integrating off the shelf robots and affordable vision systems.

How can manufacturers get started?

Fortunately, there is a lot of support available for manufacturers who want to start with projects ranging in cost from $3,000 - $50,000. Cost-sharing programs such as REMAP, Mitacs, IRAP and NGen have programs designed to help manufacturers on their digital transformation journey, along with partnerships with big manufacturers that can help guide them down the right path.

There are a lot of free resources available, especially in Canada. Portals and online assessments are available to measure the maturity of your manufacturing processes and the products you build as a way to pinpoint where to get started. Whether it's putting sensors on machines or connecting a line or designing a digital product that connects to a factory. You have to start someplace. Local colleges are a great resource to initiate a low cost project that can grow into something more significant in the future.  

Overall, companies must look at advanced manufacturing as a value creator, not a cost center. We’re in a manufacturing renaissance. It’s imperative to your future competitiveness to find the resources to advance your company’s digital transformation. With the right people, processes, and partners in place, disrupting the way you design and build products will be the key to success.

Missed the live event?

Visit, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/events/article-digital-transformation-in-manufacturing/