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November 10, 2014

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‘Smart factories’ could revolutionize production

IMAGINE a future when cars or mobile phones can be made-to-order at the same or even lower prices than off-the-shelf models. Fantasy? Not if the “Industry 4.0” assembly line exhibited at the China International Industry Fair is anything to go by.

The concept of customized products replacing the traditional mass production line is a strategy project of the German government to promote what it calls the smart factory industrial revolution.

Small wonder that the concept generated such buzz at the 16th China International Industry Fair, which ended Saturday at the Shanghai New International Expo Center.

“This is different from the mass production in the Industry 3.0 concept, where future factories could provide short-run and multiple-jobs production,” said George Wen, a product manager of SAP (Beijing) Software System Co. “It means customers could order a single product to personal specifications and not wait a long time to take delivery or pay dearly.”

SAP and Festo Didactic Co, a German automation company, displayed an Industry 4.0 assembly line in the exhibition hall. Fair visitors were invited to choose several different objects to combine, and robotic arms followed the order.

Chen Jun, chief executive at Shanghai Mingjiang Intelligence System Co, the company that developed China’s first Industry 4.0 assembly line, said a customized Land Rover may be made by the end of the year in the city of Changshu in Jiangsu Province. He said the total cost of a vehicle could be reduced by 40 percent using such an assembly line.

In addition to the assembly lines of the future, the industry fair presented other vanguard concepts that may revolutionize the way we live and work.

1. Oxai’s amphibious light aircraft

With a wingspan of only 10.4 meters and a weight of 350 kilograms, the amphibious light sport aircraft Fengling was designed and made by China’s Oxai Aircraft Co. It can operate at speeds of up to 205 kilometers per hour at a height of 3.5 kilometers. The aircraft would be ideal for short-hop trips, medical emergencies and marine patrols.

China is expected to open its low-altitude airspace to private aircraft by the end of next year. That would allow planes flying under a 3-kilometer ceiling to operate without filing flight plans or obtaining military clearance.

“There is still a long way to go in building a network of landing facilities and gas stations for private aircraft,” said Mao Yiqing, chief sales representative of Oxai. “That will all happen in time. We just need to concentrate on making the aircraft.” The Fengling carries a price tag of 1.8 million yuan (US$290,000). Mao said four were sold before the exhibition even began.

2. ABB’s YuMi robot and smart home

YuMi — a name combining the words “you” and “me” — is a collaborative robot programmed to work side-by-side on the same task as a human.

The robot was designed to address the needs of small-parts assembly, especially in the consumer electronics sector. The robot’s features include adaptable hands, flexible parts feeders, force control sensing, vision guidance and state-of-the-art controls and software.

YuMi has the capability of handling anything from a Swiss watch to a tablet PC with precision accuracy comparable to threading a needle.

On another innovative front, ABB’s “i-Home” is a smart home system that uses wireless networking and infrared technologies so that no separate wiring is required.

With the smart phone, a user can control home lighting, temperature and electrical appliances anytime, anywhere. The type of appliances and degree of operation are easily customized on the device’s control panel. It’s what might be called a “customized smart life.”

3. Siemens smart factory

In the realm of computerizing manufacturing, Siemens has combined its product lifecycle management software with automation control software to link product planning with production execution and services.

Such a “smart factory” can give a company a considerable boost in productivity and competitive edge.

The concept reduces the time-to-market of a new product by up to 50 percent. For example, a new car model could be launched within a year and an airplane could be developed in under four years. Mixing systems for chemicals or the food and beverage industry can be optimized for lower operating costs.

4. KUKA’s LBR iiwa

The lightweight robot designed by German-based KUKA Robotics has seven axes, based on the structure of the human arm, and supports direct contact with a human operator.

In essence, it acts as a “third hand” for an operator and needs no “safety fence” between it and the operator.

The robot can relieve humans of tedious, repetitive or even awkward tasks, such as inserting plugs in a vehicle body. It can also operate within the confines of a vehicle interior, doing tasks such as fastening screws in hard-to-reach places.


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