Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence, a business unit of Hexagon AB, outlined its vision for the future of manufacturing at HxGN Live, the company’s annual digital solutions conference, held June 11-15 in Las Vegas.
At the conference, users of Hexagon products heard about the company’s new products and industry trends as manufacturing enters a new age. The overarching topic that threaded its way into every conversation was smart factories and how to best achieve the ultimate future of efficient production.
“From our point of view, the exciting part is there’s a vision,” Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence President Norbert Hanke said. “You have a vision of where we want to go, but now we have to say let’s go and do the steps to get there.”
Beyond the greater smart factory theme, a sub-theme was the connecting of dots with data across business units in manufacturing businesses.
“We’re at the dawn of something new,” said Angus Taylor, Hexagon North America president and CEO. “We’re quite diverse from a methodology perspective; the same product can be used to measure medical device equipment to aerospace parts. It’s the application know-how to approach those tasks where we offer a skill set in how we train our customers to use it.”
On the trade show floor of HxGN Live, Hexagon debuted two products with serious implications for metrology in the future.
With both products, Hexagon took known problems and researched the solution, said Stephen Graham, Hexagon president of metrology software and vice president marketing.
The ATS600, a reflectorless laser that can measure large objects up to 60 m away at accuracy levels of 300 µm, was an innovation that was internally driven so Hexagon can enter new industry segments, like shipbuilding. The ATS600 can also be used up to 80 m away with reflectors. The laser tracker can also be mounted on a robot ATV and measure objects on its own, as well. Hexagon officials expect the accuracy to increase as more data is collected.
A demonstration on the floor mentioned a visit to an Oregon shipping container manufacturer, where the ATS600 was able to take in seven second measurements that would have taken three hours manually.
“There are lots of technologies that scan long distance, but not metrology technologies that get down to sub-micron levels accuracy,” Graham said. “It’s really to expand the market for laser trackers into shipbuilding and trains and provide a new method for the aircraft industry.”
The other new product, LightRunner, was more of an understood industry problem Hexagon hoped to solve. Instead of a sticker system for product measurement, LightRunner uses projection technology and two cameras to inspect products. The product, Graham says, can be implemented on a production floor and easily integrated within the process electronically as part of the metrology system.
Graham promises both products will save massive amounts of time in production processes as they measure quicker and are uploaded directly into a variety of metrology software systems.
Role of Metrology in Evolving Industry
Going further beyond the metrology-specific level, Graham said the conference’s general smart factory theme indicates the importance metrology will play as the manufacturing industry continues to evolve.
A trend Hexagon personnel have observed is moving away from using tactile measurements and the identification of a problem before setting up a strategy to solve it. Instead, Graham said the trend is toward scanning “everything” so there’s no need for thinking in advance of what might need measurement.
“That’s a huge enabler of this whole smart factory idea,” he said. “The sci-fi future, the AI future; you imagine this brain in the sky, observing everything going on in the factory. It didn’t need to think of a strategy beforehand and now it has all the data.
“It can just do the analysis and figure out what went wrong”
A major piece of the larger smart factory theme is Hexagon’s role in helping customers blend pieces of their business together and how to interpret all the data constantly being created in today’s world.
In Hanke’s keynote, he mentioned up to 90 percent of data is wasted. Later in an interview, Hanke said some statistics have between 1 and 5 percent of data being utilized and that’s an issue. While the data is no longer wasted on reams of paper, Hanke still considers that extra data waste.
“I’m not debating the amount used; it doesn’t matter it’s too small,” he said. “Better than getting more data is to use the data we have and avoid gathering the waste. It’s not good either way to just collect data for no reason.”
Whether it’s cutting down the data collected or helping customers understand and use more of the collected data, Hanke said that’s still best done with a human brain. He said the automation is, at least currently, still best left at doing tasks that take workers away from creative thinking.
“I will not shy away [from the fact that] there are certain tasks that will be done by robots, but the human brain is still the best for me,” he said. “AI can help us do more on the administrative side and we can use our brain more on the creative side.”
There was plenty of talk about the industry heading to a fully automated future, but that realization is still a long way off, and perhaps will never be fully achieved, Graham said.
Like Hanke, Graham stressed that the vision is clear and relatively tangible, but it will take people, organization and training to fully realize it.
“The potential is enormous, and the visions are exciting,” Graham said. “Whether we get that factory with the lights turned out and robots are just moving around, that’s crazy stuff of the future. The reality is the processes are more and more autonomous so that skilled workers can spend more time leveraging their skills and less time gathering the data and more time interpreting the data.”
Taylor said the company has taken notice of the continued and growing depletion of skill sets in manufacturing. With that in mind, Taylor said the level of acceptance for automation has increased, especially in the United States.
“Twenty or thirty years ago, parents used to say you don’t want to be in manufacturing, almost like it was a dirty word,” Taylor said. “It couldn’t be further from the truth. Other countries have successfully put their whole country into gear much faster than North America. There’s an opportunity here, maybe out of self-preservation or protectionism. I’m sure there will be a little more interest in manufacturing than in the past from a government perspective.”
Taylor was confident that U.S. manufacturing industries can better use automation to help solve the skill gaps.
Likewise, Hanke pulled out his iPhone and said there’s plenty of possibilities in the manufacturing industry to innovate an otherwise unexciting product.
The technologies are there, whether it’s the budding 5G networks or computing power; it’s about having the visionary leadership to take the next leap, he said. With plenty of new technologies in place and waiting to be fully realized, Hanke said he can only imagine how leaders felt during other industrial revolutions, like looking at a steam engine for the first time.
Taking that a step forward, Hanke believes it will be the small companies with visionary leaders who are able to make major waves as the industry evolves.
“Smaller companies can go faster and have an advantage,” he said. “In a 100-man shop, they can look at the whole process, not siloed, and see where things can be better. I’ve visited one or two customers where I say, ‘Wow, this is far beyond the big guys in how they think.’”