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October 26, 2016

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Sensing the smart manufacturing future

THANKS to Internet-connected sensors, we are living a “smarter” life with just a tap on the smartphone.

Interestingly, industries are calling their concept “smart manufacturing.” Many of the daily applications that we use come from industrial uses, and they are also inspiring industries.

Monitor machines with sound

Bosch, a German-based car parts producer, has teamed up with seven other German giants on a project that monitors the routine of machines or “corrects” the logistics hiccupss.

The micro sensor is pivot here as it senses whether the machines is operating correctly simply by listening to the mechanical sounds. If the machine is not working as planned, it begins to vibrate and sounds different than usual. The sensor compares the signals with stored profiles and notifies corrections which are implemented by other parts of the system.

Bosch claims once the project is completed and becomes operational by the end of 2018, it can save 30 percent of the operating costs.

A powerful tool for individual tasks, but some of the parts on our phones perform similar tasks.

They are called MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical System) sensors — small gadgets conveying physical motions into electric reactions. We can hardly imagine life without them — the micro gyroscopes in our smartphones can sense we are turning them and then rotate the screen to fit our reading. The capacitive sensors in the screens can also feel whether our fingers are touching them and command the right apps to work.

Bosch is making use of these MEMS sensors for sound and vibration feeling, which can not only diagnose operations but also correct by themselves as the vibration sensor would convey the redundant motions into electric energy.

As the project was still under development, Bosch was not willing to elaborate except that the sensors will be integrated into conventional factories and that the project was sponsored by the German government, which has invested 3.84 million euros (US$4.17 million). But what was clear was that industries were adapting commonly used sensors into machines to boost efficiency and profit.

Store information in colors

Last month, Guangdong Broadcast & TV Network Group set up set-top boxes at its warehouse. The boxes are attached with colorful quick response codes, batches of which are recorded by a scanner. Previously, they had to be done manually, which would take up a lot of time.

The color codes, substituting the barcodes which were previously used to identify the boxes, can now be decoded by a software that has boosted the logistics speed.

How does one read the massive codes? Lou Jian, technology director of Colorcodes, said the software is similar to Apply Pay and WeChat that scans quick response codes for information about goods or to make payments. But while they read one code at a time, Lou’s team added a “loop” command that “repeatedly searches codes filmed on the screen and decodes until all of them are recorded.”

The colors, on the other hand, enhance accuracy as the scanning software sorts out information about how they are grouped on the code patterns, rather than what barcode readers do, to decipher numbers based on the widths of the bars. While barcodes don’t work when tweaked or stained, the color codes can still read as long as the arrays of colors aren’t disorganized.

Massive code reading earlier was dominated, or almost monopolized by RFID, the radio-frequency identification technology, which has helped Walmart, the world’s largest retailer by profit, for a decade on streamlining its supply chain.

By sorting out radio frequencies of chips installed in the goods, hundreds of them can be recorded at a time within 100 meters by the scanner. But its cost was hindering industries for long — prices of the RFID scanning devices range from US$500 to US$2,000 each, while the chips cost up to 15 cents each. Even Walmart hasn’t finished the overall upgrading of its supply chain system, as a host of retail store workers are reluctant to pay for and put those chips into all their products.

The barcode we use every day in supermarkets costs only a slice of paper for printing. Why not change it for industrial uses?

By changing the way to read codes and adding an algorithm command of “loop,” Colorcode has come out with a middle solution between the properties of barcode and RFID technology.

The colorful codes will be presented by LED lights, each of which costs less than 0.1 yuan if one buys at wholesale rates.

But its software reads codes only within 50 meters, capturing 500 codes at a time. It can decode even when the objects are moving — at 150 meters per minute — equivalent to our walking speed.

Apart from the set-box business, it is also working with a Zhejiang-based police institute to upgrade its transport system, which would allow the traffic cameras capture all the information about the vehicles passing by a block. People then won’t have to wait at police stations for hours or days to find the car in which they lost their baggage by reviewing the monitoring videos.

Simply inputting some properties related to that vehicle it can be traced in seconds from the database.

The company research leader, also a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, has been conferred funds from the National Natural Science Foundation to develop the “Internet of Things” in the country.

“Speed and amount are the key issues for industrial operations. Once hundreds of parts are commanded by the deft use of smart apps, the result can be huge,” Lou said. “That was our idea to start the project.”

Simatics system

Siemens, the German-based industrial giant, is also enhancing sensors to streamline its industrial operations. Its Simatic control system — the name combines “Siemens” and “Automatic” — aims to integrate the mechanical parts to lower costs and upgrade the machines for self-maintenance.

At its Amberg-based and Sichuan-based digital device centers, thousands of sensors work real time at the plants, enabling 100 kinds of products to be produced in each of the lines. The qualification rate is more than 99.99 percent. Normally among 1 million products, fewer than 10 is defective.

“That’s not all,” said Chen Jiangning, director of Industry 4.0 project at Siemens. “In fact when the lean operations start, it never stops upgrading. In many cases they are figured out by workers there from their daily experience. You might hear that a welding command is modified based on a worker’s suggestion, or an assembling tactic is added to a sensor with the help of workers.”

However gigantic industrial systems are, the details are enormous. Sensors ensure the smooth passage of operations. The industrial upgrades mirror how we improve our daily life. The sensors function similarly, but extended into machines, they will become the driver of the productivity of this era.


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