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Key Canadian manufacturers share the top trends in automation

Industrial automation experts share their predictions on top manufacturing technology trends for the year.

October 12, 2022  By Compiled by Sukanya Ray Ghosh

One growing sector in manufacturing is robotics as a service. Innovations in technology and the demand for automation has lead to many robotics vendors offering and adopting RaaS as a business model, allowing manufacturers more options for automation.

In recent times, supply chain risks, labour market inefficiencies and heightened geopolitical tensions and the tightened global operating environment have accelerated the transition towards smart manufacturing and adoption of industry 4.0 technologies. Our sister publication, Manufacturing Automation, asked three industrial automation experts what they are seeing in automation trends generally, and where things might go in the future.

Eric C. Cosman, OIT Concepts

1. The value of open automation
In response to a push towards open process automation systems by several major asset owners, the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF) has identified standards to accelerate the creation of open, interoperable, and secure automation architecture that addresses both technical and commercial challenges of current systems. Much of this architecture has now been defined and facilities have been established for testing the performance and operation of individual components and standards. 

With the increasing acceptance of the general concepts associated with open automation systems, the emphasis must now shift to the demonstration of these concepts using practical examples and case studies. Attributes such as interoperability, performance and security can also be claimed by proprietary systems. So, it is critical to show that an open systems approach delivers these capabilities with more value to the asset owner.

2. Operations cybersecurity across sectors
Although there is still much to be done in securing automation systems, the standards and practices in this area have been improving for many years. Much of the initial effort was focused on specific industries. However, it is now evident that the fundamental concepts and practices are not sector-specific. As a result, there is now more interest in – and acceptance of – the idea of cross-sector standards that address the common elements of a cybersecurity program while bringing together the disciplines of information and automation security. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) recently positioned IEC 62443 as a “horizontal standard,” encouraging their various committees to use these standards as a basis for their response. 

This trend must continue as it moves the dialogue from the common or general requirements applicable in all situations to a more focused examination of the detailed practices required in specific industries. Individual sectors should develop profiles and recommended practices that interpret the fundamentals of effective cybersecurity using concepts, models and terminology that are most meaningful in their context.

3. Digitalization of engineering standards and practices
Traditionally, engineering standards and practices have taken the form of documents and related tools that define specific normative requirements with explanatory information and supporting rationale. This is an aging paradigm that does not meet the needs of current potential users and stakeholders. With the increased volume and complexity of information in these standards, it is essential to find better ways to deliver this information in a form that can be more easily applied. 

Virtually all standards development organizations are now pursuing strategies for the delivery of “electronic standards.” While the definition of this term is somewhat imprecise and may be inconsistent across organizations, the fundamental goals are basically the same. Requirements must be available in a form that allows for quantitative comparison of alternatives and the development of conformance specifications. There must also be tools and facilities for navigating the information and responding to various types of queries.

It is still not clear what form standards may take in the future, but it is apparent that simple narrative documents will no longer be sufficient.

4. Workforce development, expertise retention and leverage
Workforce development and the retention of key knowledge and skills have long been a significant challenge for automation and other engineering disciplines. This situation is expected to continue as older professionals retire and leave the workforce. Recent developments such as the global pandemic will likely only exacerbate this situation. 

Consistent with the adage “Necessity is the mother of invention,” we can expect that socio-economic influences will drive additional innovation in this area. New approaches are required for the retention of key technical and expertise-related information and transferring that knowledge and expertise to developing professionals. At the same time, it will be essential to find ways to apply this knowledge more broadly and effectively across a wide range of applications. Automation cybersecurity is but one example of this need. In that case, simply linearly applying common practices on a case-by-case basis is highly unlikely to meet the demand in an acceptable time frame.

5. Practical applications of digital twins
Digital twins have been a subject of intense interest in recent years. They have been described as augmenting artificial intelligence, machine learning, and software analytics to create functional digital simulation models that reproduce physical assets and systems in a virtual space where designers can model the behavior of various processes. 

Just as with other “new things,” the time has come for this concept to demonstrate value from useful and practical applications. Examples include providing a clearer line of sight towards predictive maintenance, modelling the lifespan of a piece of equipment or system and providing manufacturers with the ability to model entire supply chains. While these and similar concepts sound compelling in the abstract, there must be proven cases where their application delivers significant benefit with an acceptable level of effort and cost. Without such examples, such concepts remain somewhat theoretical.

John Laughlin, NGen 

1. Manufacturing sector needs
The Canadian manufacturing sector is currently facing several areas of technological, supply chain and product disruption. A key example of this is the automotive industry’s transition from an internal combustion engine product mix to an electric vehicle product mix. With only ten suppliers accounting for 49 percent of powertrain revenues, the need to shift to more flexible manufacturing is essential not only for the ability to pivot and meet customer needs. It is crucial in order to become more cost competitive. 

EV powertrains are approximately 20 percent more expensive than internal combustion engine powertrains. This increase in cost means that vehicle manufacturers will push some of these additional costs back down onto the supply base. To retain jobs within the industry, it is critical to make the necessary investments in automation to meet the new product mix, lower volumes and higher cost pressures.

The shifting powertrain mix may also lead to vehicle manufacturers producing powertrain components themselves. The type of assembly for an EV powertrain may also reduce the number of robots involved in the assembly, albeit replaced with a larger, more complex robotic assembly. 

2. The age of business integration
Many businesses that we work with at NGen have adopted industrial automation. However, a large proportion do not realise their business objectives.  Some of the challenges that we see are around companies investing in single automation applications and not fully identifying the challenges they are trying to address. NGen was established to help solve fundamental issues that have plagued manufacturers in Canada. For example, at NGen’s inception, 80 percent of manufacturing companies had invested in advanced technologies, but 45 percent did not meet their business objectives. Even before COVID-19, 30 percent of Canadian manufacturers were at risk of going out of business due to a lack of adoption of advanced technologies. 

We work with manufacturers to overcome some of these challenges by building collaborative projects between technology companies and manufacturers, identifying the challenges, and then putting in place the right selection of technologies to address those challenges.  

The actual realisation of the benefits comes when the integration is across the entire workflow and built into business practices. This requires transparency across all workflows and across all departments. This will ultimately result in optimizing business practices and providing more targeted and measurable KPIs. In 2022, we also expect a growing opportunity to embrace digital twins. It will enable companies to integrate the equipment and business practices to allow processes to respond to each other.   

3. Technology adoption
Automation and robotics are some of the critical building blocks for advanced manufacturing.  Historically, Canada has had a slower adoption rate of automation technologies outside of the automotive sector compared to other countries. Payback, ROI and the business case for automation can be hard to generalise. For specific high-volume applications, automation is essential – there is simply no other way to meet demand. However, the cost of integration, and relative lack of flexibility, remain significant barriers to adoption. In the NGen project portfolio, we see some positive signs with new automation technologies in development that integrate more functionality, advances in machine vision and machine learning that offer more straightforward, lower-cost integration and system flexibility. 

4. The continued rise of advanced technologies
In Canada, we are witnessing step changes in the advanced technologies being developed, which will serve to drive further adoption. At the same time, we also see new advanced manufacturing facilities being stood up around the country. 5G enables vast amounts of sensor data to be collected in real-time and be analyzed. This next generation of data analytics coupled with machine learning and advanced simulation offers opportunities to have more data-driven manufacturing, enabling more flexible manufacturing and lower costs. The integration of software, additive manufacturing, robotics and automation technologies allows some companies to disrupt their competitors by combining rapid turnaround, customer engagement in product design, enhanced quality control, greater precision, highly variable and low volume manufacturing and after-sales implementation and maintenance services. This works to overcome the challenges of variable demand and supply, volatile prices and labour shortages.

5. Labour market inefficiencies drive uptake of industrial automation
Canada has experienced a labour market transition, due in large part to an aging and changing workforce. Canada is not alone in this challenge – other countries such as Japan have experienced significant downturns in the labour market. One common solution to this challenge is to replace missing labour with new technologies that can drive productivity.  The issue is not that there is a lack of jobs. But in an inefficient labour market, workers do not necessarily have the skills that match the industry job requirements. This challenge hits manufacturers and goods-producing sectors the hardest as they rely on more highly skilled and technical labour. As of 2026, 20 percent of Canadian workers will be eligible for retirement. With a large contingent of the workforce exiting the labour market in the coming years, manufacturers will have to turn to new tools and technologies – especially automation and robotics – to boost productivity, remain competitive and grow their business. 

Jeff Burnstein, A3

1. Labour shortages drive adoption of automation
It’s no secret to the manufacturing industry that it’s difficult to find and retain employees, especially ones to fill the “dull, dirty and dangerous” jobs. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made the labour shortage even worse for manufacturing companies and contributed to a sharp increase in job openings throughout most industries in North America. In fact, according to Deloitte Canada, nearly a third of Canadian businesses are grappling with labour shortages.

To stay productive and competitive, many companies are turning to automation and robotics to fill jobs in manufacturing and logistics as well as automotive, agriculture, construction, electronics, food processing, life sciences, metalworking, warehousing and more. While the automotive industry was the earliest adopter of automation and still remains the largest user, the latest statistics on orders (Q3 2021) show that nearly two-thirds of sales came from non-automotive industries, further demonstrating the trend of robotics growing into areas outside of automotive OEM and tier suppliers. 

2. Smarter and easier-to-use robots
Robots are becoming smarter, driven by advances in artificial intelligence that allow the robots to teach themselves how to perform previously difficult or impossible tasks in real (or close to real) time.  Solutions leveraging advancements in AI in many shapes and forms are already working across myriad industries, helping robotic systems adapt to their work environments, rather than designing every aspect of the environment and processes to suit the limitations of the machines. These advances will enhance both productivity and safety, and lead to more applications involving true collaboration between humans and robots. 

With more and more connected systems featuring advanced sensor technology, AI can identify patterns in the data that are associated with breakdowns and other mechanical issues. This data will drive predictive applications, where AI can detect patterns that indicate a robot needs maintenance soon. It can automatically alert engineers to take necessary steps towards repairing a machine before it breaks down, saving companies costly downtime. AI-powered analysis of this data could also help businesses optimize their processes to improve quality and reduce waste.

In addition to advances in AI, robots are also becoming increasingly collaborative, flexible, more dexterous and overall easier to use, with many requiring no coding.  As a result, deployment of new robots can often be achieved in hours or days.  Many robotics vendors also have developed a wide-range of packaged solutions meaning a company can get everything it needs to automate a specific task with little or no extra engineering required.

The collaborative and flexible nature of smaller robotic arms is also offered by autonomous mobile robots that move independently within facilities without needing to disrupt infrastructures from the start or as needs change.  The AMR market is growing very quickly driven by the explosion of e-commerce.

3. The increased importance of robotics-as-a-service business model
While robots are becoming smarter and easier to use, the perceived – and in most cases, real – costs of automation have remained a deterrent to many. Over the last few years, many robot vendors have introduced robots-as-a-service offerings, which let manufacturers and other companies finance their automation without large initial capital investments. While most of these vendors “rent” their own robots for a specified amount of time, some companies have created business models around multiple vendor partners, allowing manufacturers to deploy best-of-breed industrial, collaborative or autonomous mobile robots – or a combination of these systems. They often charge by the hour (some as low as eight dollars an hour) and only when the robotic system is functioning.

A growing number of RaaS companies are also taking on the entire deployment and service process, reducing or even completely eliminate the complexity and time associated with automation along with the financial burden. The RaaS companies can handle vendor selection and project management after initial consultations with the manufacturer on what they would like to automate. Since manufacturers only pay when the system is working, the RaaS companies also ensure the robotic systems are maintained and proactively address any issues to maximize uptime. 

4. Robot mobility is gaining in importance
Autonomous mobile robots are playing an increasingly prominent role in warehouses and factories, but industries such as construction, security and delivery are also benefitting as they look to move materials or disinfect schools, hospitals and airports. The increased flexibility and diverse applications, as well as their unique ability to safely navigate in an uncontrolled environment, make them a highly attractive option for performing many of the highly repetitive, yet necessary, tasks.  

Mobile robots also became increasingly important during the pandemic, as e-commerce expanded and required rapid fulfillment. Automation became all the more necessary. AMRs not only keep the supply chain moving along as much as possible in manufacturing facilities, but also play an increasing role in retail environments for tasks like shelf scanning and floor cleaning.

The interest in AMRs for myriad industries was never more evident than at A3’s Autonomous Mobile Robot and Logistics Conference in Memphis this October, where companies such as FedEx (the platinum sponsor) and AMR vendors shared advances in AMR technology and new developments in logistics automation that helped potential users understand and deploy these technologies to increase efficiencies and stay competitive.  The next AMR and Logistics Conference will be in Boston next October. 

5. We’ve only just begun
Despite increased adoption, we’re still in the early innings. While non-automotive sectors are now surpassing automotive sectors in robot use, there are hundreds of thousands of small- and medium-size companies around the world who still haven’t automated in a wider range of industries than ever before. As more companies hear about and experience the benefits of automation, including how it is helping companies fill jobs they are struggling to fill, the number of robots and other forms of automation will see significant growth. 

We’re also seeing innovative new start-ups enter the robotics market, many receiving significant funding, who are developing new applications and improving existing ones.  From my perspective, having spent four decades witnessing the development of the robotics industry, this is the most exciting time ever!  Anyone interested in seeing what’s going on should visit Automate 2023 in Detroit (May 22 to 25) to see the latest developments from more than 600 leading automation companies. •

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