Robots, humans and 'efficient cooperation'
Factories completely operated by robots may be the popular vision for the future of manufacturing, but the human factor cannot be ignored, according to Xiao Weirong, head of B&R China, an arm of the Austrian-based company committed to industrial automation.
“In plain words, smart manufacturing means the efficient cooperation between humans and machines in the production process, with humans doing things suitable for humans and machines doing things suitable for machines,” said Xiao.
“Smart manufacturing” is the big buzz word in global industry nowadays, reflected in development strategies such as Germany’s Industry 4.0 plan and China’s Made in China 2025 initiative.
However, many people tend to equate the term with complete automation. Xiao disputes that, arguing that smart manufacturing means efficient cooperation man and machine. Human beings, he said, will always be essential to smart manufacturing, no matter to what extent it develops.
Xiao admitted that he, too, once equated smart manufacturing with unmanned automation.
“I believed that automation meant machines did everything and humans were not essential when I was an engineer in Germany,” he said. “In working on my first project, I made the software completely unmanned, but later I saw that if the machine go wrong, humans cannot intercede with its unmanned functions. The co-existence of humans and machines is the basis for industrial automation. Smart manufacturing means humans and machines cooperating harmoniously.”
How to improve that cooperation has been the focus of B&R. Last April, Switzerland-based ABB, a giant in the robotics field, acquired B&R and incorporated its technology and expertise into its own industrial automation unit.
“Many people think that smart manufacturing means adding a lot of algorithms to software, but, in fact, algorithms eat up a good deal of computing resources and slow down machines,” Xiao said. “That means, in the end, that machine efficiency is reduced and costs increased. Time cost is part of total cost.”
An emphasis on the value of humans in smart manufacturing has driven B&R to undertake the training of professionals in automation, in tandem with developing automation technologies.
Xiao’s years as a student in Germany gave him an opportunity to learn the value of vocational education. He said he wants to apply that experience to training professional technicians, whose numbers in China fall below those of academic experts.
B&R’s automation school was established to address that gap. It offers training classes to customers and employees, in cooperation with technical colleges and universities. Among its academic allies are Shandong University, Northwestern Polytechnical University and Donghua University.
By building joint labs with B&R, universities and colleges can offer the latest automation technologies to students, shorten the distance between books and technical development, and enhance the practical abilities of students.