Collaboration, outreach, industry experts, and a multitude of cutting-edge technologies took center stage at the Smart Manufacturing Experience, which was held June 7-9 in Pittsburgh.
Described as a technology showcase, the conference attracted scores of innovative exhibitors and more than 100 thought leaders and early adopters who shared insights and real-world applications of smart manufacturing in action.
Highlights included daily keynote addresses and panel discussions in the Smart Zone Theater and expert-led presentations in Knowledge Bars on the show floor. The event was co-sponsored by SME, the Association for Manufacturing Technology, the Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute (CESMII), and Advanced Manufacturing International (AMI).
In his welcome address, SME Executive Director and CEO Robert Willig said the forum was designed to help participants “implement the disruptive technologies that can lower downtime, provide powerful insights into your operations, drive productivity, and ensure the future of your business.”
The opening day keynote speaker John Butler, vice president, technology and engineering, Arconic Corp. (formerly Alcoa), shared what the Pittsburgh-based aluminum giant has learned over the years and how it is adapting to change. In the presentation, appropriately titled “Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks: Smart Journey in a 125-Year-Old Company,” Butler touted a three-pronged approach to implementing and replicating smart strategies:
--Driving value through use cases and best-practice sharing;
--Developing and retaining talent through Arconic’s leadership training program; and
--Creating internal standards for smart manufacturing systems.
Regarding talent retention, Butler emphasized partnerships with top technical universities, including customized employee programs for both practitioners and business leaders. Butler also explained how various departments within the company deploy automation and smart manufacturing differently, based on their needs and capabilities.
In his Day 2 keynote, John Vickers, SME Fellow and principal technologist at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, detailed the agency’s latest manufacturing advances, including a new welding process invented by NASA and micro-gravity material science to make in-space repairs. As a pioneer of digital twins (he helped define the term), Vickers explained how NASA uses the technology at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to create, test, build, and operate equipment in a virtual environment, simulating ultra-harsh conditions.
“We’re not constrained in these models by the laws of physics, so we can extrapolate to what we really want to achieve, then apply engineering principles,” Vickers said.
NASA is working with Boeing at the New Orleans digital factory to build core stages for the agency’s upcoming Space Launch System, which is designed for a variety of future manned and unmanned missions to the moon and beyond.
The final keynoter, Bob McWard, vice president of central region operations for Raytheon Technology Corp.’s Intelligence and Space unit, detailed Raytheon’s new Advanced Integration and Manufacturing (AIM) center in McKinney, Texas. Opened in September 2021, the 175,000-sq-ft [16,258-sq-m] facility produces multispectral targeting systems using its electro-optical infrared technology to help aircraft identify small objects from great distances, or as McWard said, “We make cool stuff.”
Necessity truly was the mother of invention for the AIM smart factory, which was built on an existing Raytheon site. When planning started in 2019, McWard said Raytheon couldn’t keep pace with an expected threefold increase in demand or its own high-tech advances. “Our products were continually improving but our manufacturing environment hadn’t changed in years,” McWard said, noting the company wanted to significantly improve efficiency and quality, including a much cleaner environment to reduce microscopic contaminants.
Soon after Raytheon merged with United Technologies in April 2020, the newly-formed Raytheon Technologies accelerated efforts on AIM, employing best practices from both companies. Digital twin technology was used to conduct more than 65 drawing iterations and virtual walk-throughs.
McWard cited 26 design objectives for the facility, with a heavy focus on making it easier for workers to do their jobs, such as providing them the tools and materials they need at the right time. To this end, AIM has reduced material travel by 80 percent, standardized workcell tooling, and adopted an “operator-as-a-surgeon” environment, where everything a technician needs is within a 6-ft [1.8-m] radius. Myriad Industry 4.0 technologies were deployed throughout the facility, including smart workstations—with automated torque application and labeling capabilities—integrated smart ovens, continual freezer monitoring, factory-wide RFID to track tooling location, and centralized data management.
Despite the broad scope of the AIM project, McWard offered sound advice for companies along their smart journey: “Start small and get some quick wins. Find those people within your company who are passionate about it, and get them on board. They’ll drive everybody else.”
As for Raytheon Intelligence Space, the company already is planning a 375,000-sq-ft [34,839-sq-m] expansion in McKinney that’s due to be completed in 2025.
At the co-located Tooling U-SME Experience (tuXperience), SME launched the new Virtual Labs tool. Using a Meta Quest 2 headset or through a desktop or laptop computer, trainees tap into virtual reality-based applied learning.
“Just as the manufacturing industry is embracing technology to move better and faster into the future, we can also optimize training and its effectiveness and scalability through leveraging technology,” said Jeannine Kunz, SME’s chief workforce development officer.
The approach was tested and streamlined through an 18-month pilot program with manufacturers.
“This immersive learning lab experience includes a virtual team leader in a bright, clean, modern facility and allows for repeated practice after students or employees gain a baseline knowledge through their eLearning curriculum and before training on real equipment,” added Chad Schron, senior director for Tooling U-SME.
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