The Future is Now: AI and Factory Automation in 2024 and Beyond

In the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the future of manufacturing stands at the intersection of human ingenuity and technological prowess. As we enter 2024, the once-distant dream of a seamlessly integrated factory floor, where humans collaborate effortlessly with intelligent machines, is a tangible reality. With AI front and center, emerging technologies are the driving force behind the latest innovations in factory automation.

Emerging Technologies at the Forefront

Edge AI and On-Premise Computing

The decentralization of data processing, exemplified by edge AI, marks a transformative shift in the way factories operate. This innovation empowers manufacturing facilities by distributing computing power directly onto the production floor, enabling sensors embedded in machines to analyze data in real time.  Unlike traditional AI systems that rely on centralized cloud-based processing, edge AI processes data locally on the device itself or within a localized network.

Numurus LLC provides products and services that power industrial AI and automation at the edge. They provided Ocean Aero off-the-shelf hardware with AI capabilities to enhance maritime threat detection. Automating marine robotic operations involved deploying edge-compute hardware, setting up operating systems, and integrating various technologies. In just six months, five directional cameras with onboard AI models had been successfully integrated, reducing the need for operator intervention and enhancing the delivery of actionable information.

Digital Twins and Virtual Factories

Virtual replicas of physical systems, digital twins allow manufacturers to test new processes, identify bottlenecks, and fine-tune operations before a single wrench is turned. They have become a pivotal component in smart manufacturing.

FactoryTalk®, developed by Rockwell Automation, is a software solution designed to support the concept of digital twins. The software was used to give Burnley Brewing’s new facility a smart manufacturing edge. Connected to automation equipment, the software provided seamless performance visualization, identifying critical improvement areas. The scalability and modularity of the solution provided flexibility and ease of upgrade as the brewery expanded. The integrated approach led to improved operational efficiency and product quality, exceeding expectations in both service and deliverables?.

Transformational Trends Reshaping the Industry

Sustainability and Green Manufacturing

Environmental changes and their impact on humans have become a leading concern. Efforts are being made in many industries to produce products in a manner that minimizes adverse effects on the environment, reduces waste, and works towards preserving natural resources. AI’s role in promoting sustainable manufacturing practices — green manufacturing — has become increasingly significant. Green technology encompasses innovative methods, tools, and devices aimed at mitigating the negative effects of human actions on natural resources and the environment.

Both ABB's Ability™ and  Schneider Electric's EcoStruxure™  are comprehensive solutions for optimizing industrial operations. They leverage AI and data analytics to enhance energy efficiency, reduce waste, and improve resource utilization. These platforms provide real-time insights and control over processes, making them valuable tools for industries looking to achieve sustainability and operational excellence. Both offer a suite of AI-powered solutions that empower factories to make data-driven decisions, thereby contributing to more sustainable and eco-friendly manufacturing practices.

Reshoring and Nearshoring

AI-driven automation is making local production more viable and cost-effective, leading to a trend of reshoring and nearshoring.

Reshoring is the practice of bringing back manufacturing or business operations that were previously outsourced to foreign countries.

Nearshoring involves relocating such operations to nearby countries or regions, typically in proximity to the company's home country.

Both aim to reduce the distance between production and market, improve control over operations, and address challenges associated with offshore outsourcing.

Leveraging AI enables automation, predictive maintenance, and data-driven decision-making. AI-driven analytics optimize supply chains, reduce production costs, and improve product quality, contributing to reshoring efforts. AI-powered robots and machines increase productivity, making local manufacturing efficient and cost-effective, aligning with the principles of nearshoring.

AI facilitates the return of production to domestic or nearby locations by improving operational efficiency and reducing the reliance on offshore outsourcing.

The Rise of AI-Powered Supply Chains 

Supply chains powered by AI signify a shift towards dynamic and adaptable systems. AI is used to optimize transportation routes, predict potential issues, and ensure product availability. These advancements result in more resilient supply chains that can adapt to disruptions, ultimately enhancing the efficiency and reliability of the entire supply network.

IBM's Watson Supply Chain Insights employs AI to provide visibility into the entire supply chain, enabling manufacturers to make data-driven decisions and optimize processes. The platform can predict disruptions, such as shipping delays or inventory shortages, and suggest alternative solutions, helping manufacturers maintain a steady flow of materials and finished goods.

Challenges and Opportunities for the Workforce of the Future 

Integrating AI on the factory floor raises essential questions about the role of the human workforce. AI does not pose a threat as a replacement for human workers but serves to complement and enhance human capabilities. The future lies in the synergy between AI's analytical power and human creativity and strategic thinking. Upskilling and reskilling initiatives are crucial to preparing the workforce for this new collaborative environment.

The future of factory automation pairs human ingenuity with advanced technologies. As we step into this new era, embracing AI's potential and nurturing human skills and creativity is imperative. The result will be a manufacturing landscape that is efficient and sustainable and a cradle for innovation and human-centric development.

If you are excited about AI and its impact on industrial automation, we invite you to register for our new virtual “Introduction to Industrial AI” training course coming up on Tuesday, February 27, 2024, 11 AM – 3:30 PM ET.

BACK TO BLOG