Industry 4.0 is Here

“Once you’re in you can’t get out.”

That was the most common theme I heard at the networking event the evening before Glass Processing Automation Days began last week in San Antonio. As a relative newcomer to the industry, this was my first major foray into the glass world. And what an entrance to this industry GPAD was.

The 20 presentations throughout the two-day-long event all focused on automation and Industry 4.0, which encompasses digitalization, automation, connectivity and analytics. Although I’ve spent plenty of time writing about automation in construction in a previous job, the automation on the manufacturing floor was among the most advanced I’ve seen in the construction world. Most presentations included videos and renderings of shop floor robots, which I found to be most useful to gain a basic understanding of the processes and machines involved in making glass.

Many presenters touted automation’s benefits, including the need for fewer people (some robots could eliminate up to six positions per shift), increased safety (robots can perform dangerous tasks), and the elimination of human error and increased job satisfaction among human workers (robots don’t mind doing boring and repetitive tasks). Robots also don’t require benefits, paid time off, breaks, vacations, insurance premiums or other costs associated with hiring individuals.

Quality control is another important aspect where automation can help, according to Nate Huffman with Softsolution North America Inc. Objective quality control in today’s environment is especially important, he says, because of the pressure to produce high quality product, pressure to keep prices down, a lack of experienced people and demand for flexibility. 

But automation doesn’t just happen, says Kimmo Kuusela with Glaston. Rather, it’s a result of systematic development steps. He outlined the five steps he sees to achieve total automation, with the first step being the operator continually exercising longitudinal and latitudinal control all the way through the fifth and final step of the system being able to cope with all situations without requiring an operator. Kuusela said we’re in the fourth phase of full automation now, in which automation is a huge player, but can’t quite yet do it all. “The result of full automation can create and change the entire business logic of your company,” he said. “Real-time data already changes the business logic.” Kuusela aims to have a fully automated tempering line by 2020, but acquiesced it is an “ambitious” goal and may not happen until 2021.

Beneficial as robots are, they aren’t a panacea to the productivity and labor problems plaguing the industry. Several people I spoke with mentioned these machines are sometimes cost prohibitive. Others told me how they can introduce a whole new labor issue. “Automation will help but then you need really good operators,” one attendee told me during lunch. “One bad operator can take you down.”

Nicola Lattuada of Adelio Lattuada also reminded us that only humans can improve processes, which is why they should always remain the focus. Lattuada also quoted Tesla that “automation is good as long as you know where to put the machine.” Even though fewer human workers may be required as automation gains more ground, the skills and analytical abilities of humans will be even more important.

I’d be remiss, of course, to not mention all the fun the glass industry has, with even competitor companies, sharing a beverage and a laugh. The Wednesday evening social event was true Texas fashion and complete with a wealth of Tex-Mex cuisine, armadillo racing and a couple longhorn cattle to sit atop.

 
 The FeneTech and National Glass Association teams. 
  

Ron Crowl, president and CEO of FeneTech, and his team did a great job organizing this event. The conference ended with Nicole Harris, National Glass Association president and CEO, and Crowl discussing GPAD’s future. NGA, of which Glass Magazine is the official publication, will assume responsibility for the conference in subsequent years.

My first GPAD is in the books and, with it, my inaugural event in the glass industry. I’m in it now, and from what I was repeatedly told, I’m in it for good. It’s a fascinating place to be.

Laurie Cowin is senior editor of Window & Door, Glass Magazine's sister publication. Contact her at lcowin@glass.org.

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