Towards Sustainability with an Autonomous Industry
When moving towards a green and sustainable industry, companies have two kinds of goals. On the one hand, companies save resources and strive for carbon neutrality in their own processes and supply chains. On the other hand, industry must be able to produce climate-neutral products based on the circular economy, which are urgently needed to mitigate climate change.
In a changing global context, including the national protectionism highlighted by the pandemic and the vulnerability of global supply chains, industrial autonomy is also increasingly valued. Twin transition is a systemic change that cannot be solved by technology alone, but where digital technology innovations, including automation, also play a significant role.
Together with about 30 VTT experts from different fields, we have created a vision for future manufacturing. The purpose of our work was to challenge current thinking, to support companies in preparing for future disruptions, and to secure global growth opportunities and Finland's competitiveness.
Autonomous manufacturing in 2035
In the autonomous factories of 2035, people and machines will work together, utilizing their own strengths and skills. Skilled people perform more advanced, holistic and strategic tasks that can also be performed remotely. Intelligent machines are aware of their own state, are able to predict and correct their own actions, and improve their performance through continuous learning. Customized products that utilize recycled materials and parts are manufactured on adaptive production lines.
Digital systems and adaptive automation are prerequisites for meeting sustainability requirements in a cost-effective way and for creating new products and businesses. Information is shared between different actors in real time, enabling a higher level of supply chain automation and the transition to circular economy business models. Production capacity is provided on demand to a wide range of customers and material losses and waste have been reduced. The use of sustainable solutions and recyclable materials has increased, and the logistics footprint is smaller.
Asset management and maintenance operations will evolve from predictive and prescriptive maintenance towards self-conscious and self-healing machines. Fleets of multi-purpose robots and drones are working with continuous maintenance and inspection tasks. Fieldworkers are using efficient AR/VR/MR systems with all the needed information at hand at the right time. Spare parts are prescribed and created on-demand locally or nearby with additive manufacturing enabling easy maintenance logistics.
In autonomous manufacturing, data and information flow in several systems that connect companies, employees, production assets and customers throughout the life cycle of products and services - from concept to manufacturing, use and recycling.
When building the future manufacturing, several different levels and perspectives must be taken into account in order to take full advantage of the opportunities of green and sustainable industry throughout the supply chain. In VTT’s vision, we have identified the key elements for future autonomous manufacturing. These are presented in Figure 1.
What autonomy means for companies
The transition to autonomy has economic, environmental and social benefits for businesses. Increasing the transparency of the production process improves resource and cost efficiency. Better foresight enables factories to customize and adjust production volumes, allowing customers to respond flexibly to changing expectations and market changes and reduce storage levels.
Manufacturing customized products requires adaptive production lines and short delivery times, which requires automation.
Sharing lifecycle data enables real-time decision-making. This, with the help of artificial intelligence, brings automated, optimized and more efficient processes to the entire supply chain. The small environmental impact of the supply chain will be a significant competitive factor for many Finnish companies in the future. This requires common rules for sharing data and ensuring security. Companies therefore need to understand the business potential of data sharing and should prepare for the implementation of the processes, rules and tools needed to share data.
Minimizing the physical and cognitive load on employees leads to better well-being and productivity as autonomous machines and robots perform repetitive, dangerous, and simple tasks and support the employee in increasingly complex tasks. Intelligent systems, in turn, help with decision-making by providing data-based solutions or predictions. Raising the level of autonomy will increase the opportunities for remote working in industry, where Finland can be a pioneer. An intelligent and interactive work environment makes the industry an attractive workplace, giving workers the opportunity to be involved in making a climate-neutral future.
The Finnish manufacturing industry is export-orientated and international. Its offerings are dominated by high tech solutions and related digital services. Increased autonomy is one of the solutions for the required transition towards more sustainable industry.
Finland has world-class expertise in artificial intelligence, which is one of the main technical enablers for autonomous manufacturing. Academia and industry are also successfully developing new innovations for circular and bio-based materials to address the challenge of resource sufficiency. Finland is also well positioned in human technology collaboration research,
especially from human-cantered perspective and empowering workers with new technologies and work roles.
Karoliina Salminen, Riikka Virkkunen,
Heli Helaakoski, Anna Viljakainen,
VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
The rise of maintenance droids
A popular vision of a future with robots was created by the immensely popular Star Wars movies. The word “droid” is so ubiquitous that it is hard to believe the word was created and trademarked by George Lucas, the films’ director. In fact, Star Wars robots have motivated real science. As an example, NASA’s personal satellite assistant was inspired by the lightsaber training droid used by Luke Skywalker. If a minor droid in Star Wars can influence NASA, can R2-D2 and BB-8, the movies’ two nonanthropomorphic robots, have an effect on how we conduct repairs?
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