Factories of the future: our visit to the Smart Factory Expo


Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy (SELA) at the University of Sheffield develops engineering undergraduate students to become leaders of tomorrow, who create positive impact in research and industry.

Talented students are recruited from the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering, working with industry partners and academics to fast track the development of engineering leaders with the skills, confidence and aptitude to make a positive difference. SELA challenges members through real projects that use enterprise and entrepreneurship to link their leadership training to significant issues facing industry and our society today.

The blog below, written by members of the student cohort, provides an overview of their experience at this year’s Smart Factory Expo and some of the key take-away messages relating to Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things.

Devices at the expo

Originally posted on: Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy (SELA)

Authors: Sam Maxwell and Rob Bowland, SELA student cohort 2018

On Wednesday, 13 November we had the chance to visit the Smart Factory Expo at the Liverpool Exhibition Centre along with Mo-anna Tucker from our SELA Cohort. Our aim was to understand the current innovations in industry surrounding data and the Internet of Things, to build context for our second year SELA project.

This year our project is based on data-driven manufacturing. We are looking to show how data can accelerate improvement in manufacturing processes; for example, performing quality control on the machining of very high tolerance jet engine blades.

Smart Factory Expo brings together companies from across Europe to showcase the latest developments in technology: from cybersecurity to additive manufacturing, all the technologies involved in Industry 4.0 can be found here. As well as finding the giants of the industry – Siemens, PTC and Autodesk, to name a few – start-up businesses developing very innovative and targeted technologies can also be found at the Expo, along Innovation Alley. Ultimately, this was a fantastic event to get some fresh ideas on how data can drive continuous improvement in a business, and to build contacts to help with our project.

My aim with this blog post is to share some of the great ideas and technologies we found at the event. So, here are our highlights of Smart Factory Expo 2019.

1. Laser engraved bar codes

We saw a machine that provided laser engraving of plastic and metal parts travelling along a conveyor line. Whilst engraving parts with a barcode to track their progress through a factory is not a new idea, the advent of the smart factory means this method of tracking will allow for much faster improvements in part quality and the tracking of faults throughout a production line as the part is tracked at each stage of the production process. The benefit with this machine is that the part being barcoded (in this case, a pen) does not have to stop moving whilst it is engraved.

2. Generative design

Close to the centre of the expo was a futuristic display run by AutoDesk, demonstrating the outputs of a process known as generative design. This software-driven design approach involves inputting a series of design constraints, such as performance requirements, desired materials, spatial requirements etc, into the design software. From these inputs the software will conduct an iterative design process, generating multiple permutations to meet the given requirements, improving with each iteration as it ‘learns’ what works and what doesn’t, providing a platform for rapid design exploration.

The generative designs can then be manually refined or immediately put into production, often leading to very visually distinct and organic looking outputs, such as the as the centrepiece of the display at the Expo – the moon lander.

3. Pump fault tracking with the Internet of Things

One of the major applications currently being developed using the Internet of Things is the improvement of predictive maintenance in factories. One example of this we found at the Expo was provided by Austin Consultants; they showcased a monitoring system for pumps using measurement of the power transfer to the pump motor during operation.

Different power levels outside the normal operating range indicated different faults with the pump system. Monitoring of the pump in this way would allow for much faster reporting of faults and the potential for predictive maintenance by tracking the trend in power data.

4. Remote control robotics

Much of what was on show at the Expo focused on automation and a reduction of human input. In contrast to this, one exhibit highlighted the use of technology and data to augment human-controlled processes. We were lucky enough to be able to try a remotely controlled robotic arm utilising haptic feedback technology (technology that can create the sensation of touch) in order to give human operators a greater sense of control by providing tactile sensations in response to the arms movements and collisions. Though the particular system is still in the early stages of its development, it is already showing potential for those tasks too dangerous for humans to perform unaided but that still require a human touch.

5. The value of data

One of the key messages we heard throughout our visit was about the value of data and how it provides improvements within factories. A key message is that data on its own is not valuable: it has to have context to act as a useful resource. Thus, when selecting the data to log from factory systems, it is important to select parameters that provide additional context to the problem and give deeper insight into how a system is performing. In short, more data doesn’t necessarily mean more value.

6. Machine learning and AI

Machine learning and AI have become buzzwords around expos of late. Whilst they are definitely a very valuable tool in the analysis and application of data, there is a tendency to assume that they are the default technologies to use with data once it has been collected. In reality, most applications can be implemented with much simpler solutions (such as numerical thresholds and email notifications) rather than having a system automatically reacting in the background. It is important not to over-complicate solutions as this can detract from their usefulness once deployed.

Our visit to the Smart Factory Expo was a fantastic experience and we walked away feeling more knowledgeable about the industry’s current direction. We now understand that data must have context in order to provide value to a project or system. Furthermore, it is important to only use the technology required to provide a good solution to a problem, added complexity (for example, machine learning and AI) does not necessarily mean added performance.

Additionally, we made some new contacts to help us with our project throughout the day. In particular, a big thank you goes to Ceri Batcheldor (Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Sheffield, and SELA Board Member) and Alex Kelly (IT Manager at Tinsley Bridge) for helping us during our visit to the Expo and introducing us to some useful new contacts. I can definitely recommend a visit to next year’s Expo and I hope to visit again in the future.

To find out more about SELA, their student projects and industry collaborations, visit the SELA website.