From the Factory to the Smart Factory

by Maurizio Crespi, ANIE Automazione Managing Board

In the mid-eighties, when I began to deal with Industrial Automation, the concept of “Lean Manufacturing” was in vogue and the first expert systems began to apply the concepts of artificial intelligence.
So why only today do we want the smart factory and a focus on artificial intelligence?

The “slim production” concept was coined by scholars who analyzed in detail the performance of the production systems of the world’s major automobile companies and compared them with the Japanese Toyota, which exceeded the limits of mass production applied then (and still today) from almost all Western companies. In this way it was tried to eliminate the excess of activity, handling, defects, transport and to reduce the stops, optimizing the timing of the processes.

The guiding principles were based on:
1. Definition of the value from the customer’s point of view;
2. Identification of the actions that lead to the product or service realization;
3. Management of the activities’ flow by Processes and not by Functions;
4. Setting of activities based on the downstream process request;
5. Continuous Kaizen improvement (KAI Change, ZEN Better).
These are the same concepts that guide us today. Why, then, are we still talking about it? Because these “winning” ideas tried to pull technology that did not exist yet. Today the reverse process takes place: technology is alive and is a driver.

I’ll make an example: today an athlete when running can use a “smart watch” that controls the heartbeat, trajectories, accelerations, and that gives information on the presence of road traffic or imminent rain creating new routes. At the end of the run, it downloads all the statistical data, analyzes it and plans the actions for the following day. In just a few months the “athlete” has become a “smart athlete”.
The same process is taking place in the factory production. The ideas were already in place in the ‘80s, but only now can we really apply them with the help of technology that runs faster than ideas. Now, in fact, with the “smart sensors” we can gather information, analyze it and dynamically change the actions related to production processes.

In particular, we can apply the concepts of:
“Lightness”, with the reduction of sizes, waste and warehouses;
“Speed”, with an increase in calculation and data transmission performance;
“Accuracy”, with the greatest precision that the instruments provide us at low cost;
“Visibility”, with instant data exchange between production and control;
“Multiplicity”, with dynamic format changes and process parallelism.
Coincidentally, these 5 points are also the 5 chapters of the “American Lessons” held by Italo Calvino in 1985.