Manufacturers using digital transformation to future-proof operations
Future-proof manufacturing holds the promise of smart, connected factories starts with digitization and digitalization to make better and more informed decisions.
- Future-proofing manufacturing uses digitization and digitalization and eventually digital transformation to help companies make better and more informed decisions.
- Future-proofing manufacturing goes beyond acquiring data; manufacturers also need to evolve their business models and how they sell, acquire and distribute items to better serve their customers.
Future-proof manufacturing holds the promise of smart, connected factories able to use data to nimbly adapt to highly competitive environments, supply chain challenges and demanding customers. The journey begins with digitization and then digitalization, the first steps to better understanding and more informed decisions.
Leading manufacturers are making the digital transition with help from trusted partners. One is using computer vision and artificial intelligence to empower its workforce, while another empowers its customers with data-rich online content at their fingertips.
Capturing manual assembly data
Silicon Valley startup Invisible AI helps manufacturers digitally capture data from manual assembly lines to provide valuable insights and drive improvements. The computer vision platform digitizes manual assembly by using a system of AI-enabled cameras to track operator’s movements in real-time.
Co-founded in 2018 by two software engineers, the startup announced the close of a $15 million Series A funding round in Sept 2022. Invisible AI currently works with leading manufacturers, including Toyota Motor North America, to deploy solutions at scale. Their mission, to be the eyes of the intelligent factory.
“We’ll go into a factory and cover a line with our AI modules,” said CEO and co-founder Eric Danziger, who is also a member of the A3 Vision & Imaging Technology Strategy Board. “You may have 20 or 50 cameras on a line, all communicating with each other, all on the same local network. We’re building this cohesive, living 3D view.”
Video requires a huge amount of bandwidth, which Danziger said is not practical for the cloud. That’s why Invisible AI’s platform is an edge-based system. Each device holds 2 TB of storage, including all its own 3D volumetric video data, and runs its own computer vision processing.
“We started with just the line operator’s body. And now we’re doing the body and the workpiece, and in some cases, the tools. We’re focused on understanding the scene.”
Rather than watching hours of video, manufacturers use Invisible AI’s platform to highlight what’s important, such as a cycle that took too long, or where someone did something unusual, or some other anomaly on the assembly line.
“Where you might have 40 hours of video multiplied by 5 stations, we’ll give you the most important 10 minutes of that day,” Danziger said, citing examples like information about cycle time and the breakdown of time spent working versus time walking. “Manufacturers are always trying to get rid of waste in these processes. That’s a huge focus for us.”
Empowering the workforce
These AI-enabled devices help engage and empower manufacturers’ workforces. Instead of writing things down on paper and sending the next shift an email, frontline operators can use Invisible AI’s data to build better shift reports. They can describe the challenges they’re having and how to make improvements with tangible examples. Adding digital technology to these workers’ day-to-day operations gives them a voice.
“We’re the eyes, not the brain (at least, not yet). We’re there to alert you to what is going on, but we can’t understand it for you and solve it for you,” Danziger said. “That still requires help from the people you have on the ground. Employees that are engaged are the ones that are helping you find efficiencies. The people that work with these machines every day can tell you what’s wrong if you give them the tools. It drives appreciation for their job. It helps with retention. It makes your production better.”
Improving ergonomics and safety
The AI platform is also finding utility in safety and ergonomics. Danziger said ergonomics is a continual problem for manufacturers. They spend a lot of time making sure that these assembly line jobs are safe and not too physically demanding.
The Toyota manufacturing complex in Indiana was the first to implement Invisible AI’s technology at scale with an initial purchase of 500 AI devices in early 2022. The automaker said they are constantly finding new use cases for the technology such as ergonomics analysis to prevent injuries.
The company also is working with medical devices and agricultural equipment, had outreach from electronics manufacturing, and expects to be working soon with the aerospace industry. The technology works with both moving assembly lines and fixed stations.
More data leads to better understanding
Danziger said the volumetric image data their systems capture and analyze help them understand people from multiple perspectives, along with the objects they interact with on the assembly line. Watch a demo.
“Providing more and more streams of data, making sure we can help manufacturers understand where time and effort is spent in labor, making sure it’s ergonomic, efficient and they’re hitting their productivity targets, and then making sure we understand why, so they can understand their operations better – information about the real world is the key to what we do.”
The Invisible AI team is excited for the future. With the automotive industry transitioning to electric vehicles, which require new manufacturing methods for the batteries and complex wire harnesses, Danziger said many of their customers are thinking about the future with renewed intensity. They’re thinking about future-proofing.
“It’s these times when you get jolted out of your routine that you start to rethink how things are done. New vehicles, new manufacturing methods, new technologies and new competitors. That requires a whole new way of doing things, and more understanding.
“This idea that there is this representation of your facility that you can access from anywhere in the world, that can give you new streams of data to help you understand what’s going on and what to pay attention to, that’s really exciting. That’s the future of manufacturing. Getting this data is the first step.”
Emerging technologies, increased competition and supply chain challenges are making digital transformation a necessity. For growth and resiliency, manufacturers need to expand and strengthen their sales channels while maintaining customer retention. In today’s market, that’s challenging without a strong digital presence.
Rise of industrial e-commerce
By 2025, according to a Gartner report, 80% of B2B sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will occur in digital channels. Manufacturers will either get online or get left behind.
Established in 2015, KYKLO creates unique product content and provides a B2B e-commerce platform for industrial manufacturers and their distributors, many of whom are leaders in the automation industry. It’s no coincidence that the company’s co-founders are both former Schneider Electric employees. This insider perspective gives them an advantage.
“More than half of our organization are engineers by trade, so they are very familiar with the product content they are creating,” said Jonathan Pittman, director of strategic partnerships. “We’re not simply an e-commerce provider, we are a data-driven e-commerce provider. SEO enrichment is at the core of our business.”
He said the product discovery experience is huge. That’s why KYKLO emphasizes the importance of enriching product content for search engine optimization (SEO). It’s not just about having a presence on the web. It’s about being found.
KYKLO’s knowledge base is in industrial automation, hydraulics and pneumatics. The list of international brands on the company’s website and the associated product content for each of those brands, including product images, is extensive. You will find everything from electrical switches and gearboxes to PLCs and robots.
“Every single one of our SKUs is created manually,” Pittman said. “Every enriched description is unique, non-duplicated, and built specifically for search, discoverability and e-commerce. Today, our total database sits over 5 million SKUs.”
KYKLO engineers curate all the pertinent information on a product, categorize it and create the technical attributes. Then they make sure it’s easily searchable on the web. They also create product selectors and configurators, anything that lends itself to an easier product discovery experience.
Manufacturers online or lagging behind
While product discovery is vital in the B2C online marketplace, it’s even more critical in B2B e-commerce. Particularly in the industrial sector, the products themselves are complex and in most cases, the product content or digital catalog is incomplete. According to Pittman, 70% to 80% of manufacturers have less than 50% of their products documented online.
“If you’re manufacturing more than a few thousand parts, it becomes increasingly difficult for your customers to find the right product. If you don’t have all your products online, then you’re hurting your channel partners and ultimately your end users.”
Industrial webstores must be adapted to how manufacturers’ customers purchase high-tech products. Differences in payment terms and shipping methods are good examples. In a B2B environment, customers are using credit terms, not just credit cards. Many customers prefer to use their own freight carriers, so a B2B e-commerce platform must be able to accommodate third-party shipping. Industrial B2B platforms must also handle repeat orders, PO numbers and invoicing methods not typical on B2C platforms. Manufacturers’ webstores also need to accommodate multiple buyers per account.
“The data and analytics provided by a dedicated B2B e-commerce platform like ours helps manufacturers make more impactful and data-driven decisions. They can see what sells best and where, and can make improvements based on product interest.”
Pittman said they have created product content for over 600 manufacturers represented by KYKLO’s distributor customers. Their manufacturer partners are big names in industrial automation, including ABB, Festo, Panasonic, Phoenix Contact, Schneider Electric, WAGO and Yaskawa.
Mitsubishi Electric Automation is another partner manufacturer. “If you go to our webstore, in the bottom corner it says powered by KYKLO. Because of their understanding of what we do as a manufacturer and the technologies we can provide, they were able to help us develop a webstore to meet the needs of our end customers,” said Jim Brys, corporate director of distribution at Mitsubishi Electric Automation. “For distributors of our products, KYKLO can also provide a subscription service for those who would like to have webstores.”
Engineers today want to do their research online before calling in the experts.
“You have to change with the times,” Brys said. “Look at the pandemic. We preferred not to put our people in front of the customers and the customers didn’t want to see salespeople in front of them. It changed the whole dynamic of the manufacturer/distributor-customer relationship and we’re probably not going back. This is the way of the future.”
The future promises a more empowered, enlightened workforce which uses data to improve manufacturing efficiency, quality and safety. Data-rich industrial webstores will help engineers find the right products for their next automation project.
Tanya M. Anandan is contributing editor for the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Original content can be found at www.automate.org.
Original content can be found at Association for Advancing Automation (A3).