The cyber-physical manufacturing journey

Mitsubishi Electric Australia

By Dr Koji Yasui*
Wednesday, 17 April, 2024

The cyber-physical manufacturing journey

It is time for manufacturers to start their own digitalisation journey and ride the wave of the latest industrial revolution.

Society is undergoing a large-scale transformation as the trend towards smarter technology is continuing. In these modern times, manufacturing businesses need to become smarter, but the question is, what should they do?

Industry is facing the biggest changes it has seen in centuries

We’ve been saying for a long time that the next industrial revolution will be triggered by advances in digital technology. The latest industrial revolution is directed at the smartification of society, whereby all aspects of society will operate in an autonomous and smartly coordinated fashion. For example, smart grids to advance the supply of electricity were promoted by the United States around 2009. This was followed by a boom in 3D printers in 2014, and around 2015, Germany’s Industry 4.0 prompted a lot of discussion in industrial circles.

While the entities involved and the content differs, all these initiatives have the same goal: to drive a smart society through various means. Experts predicted that the new industrial revolution would kick off in full swing around 2020. And it is true to say we have seen advances in semiconductors and emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), 5G communications and blockchain. We have also been starting to see the development of quantum computing and communications. So, 2020 seemed to be a historic year with the industrial revolution really hitting its stride.

Furthermore, through the COVID-19 pandemic digitalisation gained momentum, and even in Japan, which lagged far behind, working from home and remote meetings became common practice. It was potentially one of the greatest transformations since the first industrial revolution 200 years before.

During the pandemic, investments in the digitalisation of the manufacturing sector soared, particularly around 2021. At its start, many manufacturing sites had to cease operations, while those that could continue production did so owing to digital technologies that allowed remote monitoring and control. With the usefulness of digitalisation being more evident than ever to the manufacturing industry, investment got into full swing. Keywords in use before the pandemic, such as ‘digital transformation’, became more popular as many manufacturers started to introduce the Industrial IoT and made improvements in their digital infrastructures.

The smart manufacturing trend spread to electric vehicle (EV) production, where there has been significant investment in the digitalisation of battery plants. The semiconductor shortages experienced during the pandemic also led to increased digital investments in that industry, as semiconductors are one of the key components in all electronic products, from batteries to smartphones. Those investments in digitalisation are starting to bring results, while key events in 2022 triggered concerns about energy security, especially in Europe, and so digitalisation investments also began to expand into the energy sector as well.

Given this background, it is time for manufacturers to start their own digitalisation journey and ride the wave of the latest industrial revolution. Investments in digital technologies are rapidly progressing, particularly in larger corporations, and are expected to accelerate further in the future.

Figure 1: Influences that paved the way for a digital society.

Figure 1: Influences that paved the way for a digital society. For a larger image click here.

How is the manufacturing industry addressing smart manufacturing?

In Japan, we call the smart society at the heart of the new industrial revolution Society 5.0. Such smart societies are clearly more resilient to uncertainties and will be effective in finding solutions to today’s challenges such as energy security. For example, if every household was fitted with solar panels and a battery system, it would be possible for homes to have electricity without relying on the grid.

Manufacturing sites that were already relatively well equipped for smart manufacturing, including using remote monitoring and control functionalities, were able to remain largely unaffected during the pandemic and continued to operate. The benefits of using cutting-edge digital technologies not only provided immediate results but also created opportunities.

The global push towards a sustainable society presents an opportunity for manufacturers. The digitalisation of the EV and energy sectors is a hot topic now, being so closely related to global decarbonisation and net zero strategies. Companies across the value chain of applicable technologies have significant opportunities here. For example semiconductor factories, which produce the components used as building blocks for the latest digital technologies, and data centres which process large volumes of digital data, are both intensive energy users. In this regard, energy-saving technologies are exactly what the world as a whole is actively looking for right now.

The key to solving the challenge

In terms of making manufacturing smarter, the goal should be to create cyber-physical systems that allow companies to optimise their operations and activities in actual physical space, based on insights from the virtual model. As a first step, it is necessary to establish digital twins (digitised alter egos) of people and machines that exist in the physical world, re-created in cyberspace. Incidentally, cyberspace is not exclusively in the ‘cloud’, but can also be generated using on-premises servers installed within a company’s facilities or it can even extend to ‘edge’ devices such as PCs and smartphones.

The origins of the digital twin concept can be found in the development of smart grids back in 2009. This early work has helped to address key challenges to the realisation of today’s digitalisation. For example, battery storage costs needed to be reduced by a factor of 10 whilst the speed of data exchange and computer processing had to increase by a factor of 10 to support the data processing needs.

The prices of battery storage are now one-tenth of what they were because of increased investments in EVs. With the introduction of 5G, and work already underway on next-generation 6G, communication speeds are expected to exceed today’s requirements. Progress is also being made on practical applications of quantum computing, a technology that can be extremely powerful in the optimisation of key activities when compared to conventional computing. Additionally, EV manufacturing sites around the world are already leveraging cyber-physical systems, including in Japan, where large companies are taking the lead in accelerating such efforts.

As costs are reduced, newer technologies become easier to develop and implement. Manufacturers should make use of the most promising current technologies and quickly move on to making their company smarter.

Identify your strengths

Small and mid-sized production sites can find connecting their equipment to cyberspace a big challenge. When a company decides to make their factory smarter, what approach should they take and how should they proceed in a practical sense?

Digital twins used to recreate a manufacturing process in cyberspace are relatively easy to build, especially when it comes to replicating component assembly lines, which is what most larger companies are involved with. However, there can be challenges when it comes to specific machining operations — for example, such as grinding and polishing — where many small and mid-sized companies excel, and unfortunately it is often the case that these companies have limited budget available for investments.

From a manufacturer’s perspective, the reality is that digital twins do require some level of investment, so it is recommend to first look at small on-site digital improvements that can form the foundation for further smart applications. To achieve this, digitalisation budgets should focus on enabling technologies that can drive growth and flexibility to meet changing business conditions.

The strength of digital twins is that we can try out different ideas in cyberspace. This helps to identify the methods that generate the greatest improvements for physical processes. Despite digital twins being in cyberspace, they are still based on the physical reality that represents a set of manufacturing capabilities. These capabilities are at the core of a factory’s competitiveness, and so the priority should be to strengthen them. Digital twins are an excellent way of improving performance and quality, and subsequently boosting profits.

When small or mid-sized companies start to utilise digital twins, this enables the entire supply chain to be optimised with the addition of this missing part. The digital twins developed for the manufacturing industry can also be deployed in the mobility and energy sectors in the form of EV production, as well as in the food and beverage, pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors, which all face global issues and have great potential for development.

The changes we are seeing are the most significant in several hundred years, so it is important not to panic or over-react, but to take time and consider carefully. Every company has unique facets, such as expertise, market knowledge or domain know-how, and these core values should be built on. Companies should identify their unique strengths and utilise new tools such as digital twins, IoT, AI and 5G to support the smarter development of these inherent strengths.

Figure 2: Factories that leverage digital twin systems.

Figure 2: Factories that leverage digital twin systems. For a larger image click here.

First, companies should review their capabilities and polish their strengths. It is important to then actively communicate these to the rest of the world and develop them further. Becoming smarter can be a tool for communicating a company’s strengths to the outside world and connecting with partners who can best leverage the technology.

Taking those first steps towards smartification

The basic approach to smartification is to improve the physical factory. Physical aspects, such as machining centres and CNC systems, are critical for competitiveness, so ensuring these devices are continuously improved and using the latest technologies contributes to competitiveness.

Companies may find issues that need to be urgently addressed. Many of the technologies that can solve these problems are already available but there is a need to commercialise and provide solutions even quicker and more efficiently than before.

In order to respond to growing market demands it is essential to utilise an ecosystem that delivers the necessary technologies needed by manufacturing industries. Such an ecosystem should be independent yet be founded on mutual coexistence and co-prosperity, while ensuring a win-win for all. In particular, the creation of a sustainable and collaborative society will be an important topic in the future, and we will need to find ways to include as many people as possible in this ecosystem.

As we emerge after the pandemic, the adoption of digitalisation is accelerating in response to social changes. Companies must take this chance to implement the latest solutions and accelerate their own progress towards digitalisation and smartification.

*Dr Koji Yasui is Mitsubishi Electric´s Senior Chief Engineer at the Factory Automation Systems Group and holds a PhD in Engineering. He participated in the development of industrial laser cutting machines as a researcher and managed teams responsible for the development of electrical discharge machines, NC controllers and electron beam machines. He also participates in collaborative activities involving industry, government and academia to highlight technologies that meet customer needs.

Top image credit: hangxu

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