Efforts to make factories smart are accelerating in the manufacturing industry in Japan, and Japanese newspapers and online magazines are regularly picking up the specific activities of an individual company to build a smart factory. 

Highlights of the Smart Factory Japan 2019 Trade Show

The Smart Factory Japan 2019 trade show took place at Tokyo Big Sight from June 5 to 7, 2019. Some 43,000 people visited the trade show, an increase of 4,100 compared to last year. During the exhibition focusing on smart factories, some 200 exhibitors presented and introduced a range of technologies and solutions to support the building of a smart factory. 

FANUC presented its “Field System” (FANUC Intelligent Edge Links & Drive System), an IoT platform to support the building of a smart factory for the manufacturing industry, which targets improvements in productivity and efficiency. The application can monitor the status of some 30 robots and other equipment and detect any anomalies such as stoppage. This time-series data can be cross-checked with the production data to better understand the production efficiency of each production process and to develop data-based improvement measures. FANUC also presented the example of using Field System in its own factory and its AI capability as well as introducing various tools to support manufacturers to build a smart factory.

Amada Group, a Japanese machine manufacturer of metal working applications, presented “V-factory”, its IoT service to support the next generation of ‘smart’ metal working along with other machine tools and services. V-factory, which was launched in May 2018, consists of a web application to visualize the operation status and the conditions of metal working machines on a real-time basis with an optional maintenance service. The system helps to improve the production efficiency through navigating the production process and suggests the type of mold to be used that is made possible by a pre-installed program. It also offers services aimed at improving the quality of production, such as preventative maintenance as well as proposals to improve the machine’s operation.

Other exhibitors also presented robots, logistic solutions and a wide range of technologies and systems to help improve efficiency and address labor shortages.

HOKUSHO displayed its “Belt Vertilator”, a simple vertical continuous transfer system between two points, which uses a resin belt to enable the transfer of the maximum quantity of goods in the minimum amount of time. Vertilator can transfer 3,000 pieces of 20kg goods per hour, the fastest in the industry and is being used not only in warehouses and delivery centers, but also in all kinds of distribution facilities. Meanwhile, Okamura exhibited its “AutoStore”, a robotic storage system to support warehouse operations. Autostore uses robots that are mounted on top of a grid to move densely stacked containers in and out of the storage facility, and thus saves both space and manpower required for the warehouse operations. The system is already being used by more than 20 companies in Japan, mostly those in the logistics industry. Okamura is now targeting potential customers in the manufacturing industry, by claiming that the system is useful in managing product parts for after service.

IHI Logistics & Machinery Corporation presented its “AI Auto Depalletizing System” (AADS). The world’s first AI-enhanced depalletizing (unloading boxes from a pallet) system has significantly improved cognitive performance and is able to handle pallets of various shapes and sizes. The system is quite popular, according to the company.

Support for building a smart factory by U.S. startup companies

Nikkei Sangyo Shimbun reported the efforts of U.S. manufacturers to make their productions smart and introduced several examples that use innovative technologies of startup companies.

Veo Robotics, Inc. is transforming manufacturing with products that incorporate advanced computer vision, 3D sensing and AI. It is currently developing robot arms for industrial use that can collaborate with human workers. Using LiDAR technologies such as computer vision and 3D sensing that are being used in auto-driving cars, the robot’s arms can map everything in the factory on a real-time basis. If the robot’s arms and any of the workers come too close, it automatically slows down or stops the work in order to prevent any accidents from occurring. The development is being jointly conducted with major manufacturers such as FANUC and will soon be launched commercially.

Tulip’s “Factory Kit” is the first industrial internet of things (IIoT) kit. Factory Kit includes out-of-the-box apps that are easy to customize to the factory floor. It enables engineers to design, build and run the production application without having to write any code. By using Factory Kit, applications to improve a factory’s performance such as the ones for machine monitoring, checking of the production status and the preparation of a work manual can be easily created. Its intuitive drag-and-drop based interface can be linked with other IoT-related products and existing systems without complex codes for connecting different systems. The kit is already being used by customers in 14 countries and its sales are growing rapidly.

Drishti Technologies, Inc., a digital automated equipment manufacturer, is developing a platform to improve production based on action recognition and AI. Its action recognition technology uses computer vision and AI to digitize actions performed by humans on the assembly line as they perform them. In other words, the time spent to complete each task by each worker can be quantified. The data can be used to improve not only workers’ productivities, but also quality management and traceability. 

Challenges in building smart factories

Fuji Keizai, a marketing research company, estimates that the collaborative robot, “cobot” market size in Japan will expand to JPY100 billion by 2025, a 15-fold increase over 2017. Globally, the market size is expected to become JPY590 billion by 2025. The demand for industrial robots in Japan continues to increase due to the recent labor shortage as well as the shift to smart factories.

Factory automation, however, is not as simple and easy as some expect. Scott Anderson, Director of Amazon Robotics Fulfillment recently told reporters during a tour of the company’s Baltimore warehouse, “The technology is very far from the fully automated workstation that we would need.” He also said it would take at least 10 years before Amazon could entirely automate the fulfillment process.

A range of technologies and systems have already been used to make factories smart. Partnership between all players from large corporations to startup companies will be needed to foster innovation and accelerate the shift to smart factories.