How Ireland will play key role in global smart manufacturing revolution
New Science Foundation Ireland centre will offer valuable testing facility to industry
The manufacturing sector is the second largest employer in Ireland and accounts for 450,000 jobs. Photograph: Getty Images
Headquartered at the University of Limerick (UL), the Confirm Research Centre for Smart Manufacturing is a consortium that includes UL, the Tyndall National Institute, University College Cork, Cork Institute of Technology, NUI Galway, Athlone Institute of Technology, Maynooth University and Limerick Institute of Technology. It is also backed by 42 industry partners.
The centre is funded by SFI and industry to a value of €47 million, making it one of the largest new research and development centres in the country.
Explaining the importance of the centre, Confirm director Prof Conor McCarthy said that the manufacturing sector is the second largest employer in Ireland and accounts for 450,000 jobs, 24 per cent of total economic output and €112 billion in exports.
“It’s really important to the Irish economy,” he says. “We will be looking at smart manufacturing and what has become known as Industry 4.0. This concept came out of Germany in 2011. We are at Industry 3.0 at the moment. This involves highly automated production lines in factories. They are doing the same thing every day and they are run by highly sophisticated process logic control systems. It is highly advanced, and this is what we have in Ireland.”
Industry 4.0 opens up new concepts in manufacturing, facilitating entirely new business models. “It brings in what are known as cyberphysical systems,” explains Prof McCarthy. “This is where machines are talking to each other through the internet of things (IoT). They are able to make smart decisions and potentially communicate with the products they are making. The robots are not constrained by their programming in what they do.”
The move to Industry 4.0 has been driven by mass customisation. “At the moment we have mass production where everything is the same. The consumer model is changing, however. They are now looking for bespoke products with their name on trainers, green laces, size 10.75, and other personalised characteristics. You can already go on the phone and design your car. The consumer is becoming part of the design and manufacturing process.”
Business models have changed, he adds. “In the past Adidas would produce shoes in a low-cost country in Asia in a limited number of sizes and designs, and ship them back to Europe, America and other key markets. The model was low-cost manufacturing and the highest possible sale price. That is no longer the case. The customer wants bespoke products and they are not willing to wait for them. This is enabling re-shoring of manufacturing facilities. Companies are bringing very advanced manufacturing plants very close to the customer for next-day delivery. This is happening across every industry from medical devices to consumer products.”
And manufacturing has to keep up with that. “It requires the digitisation of the process and making the customer part of it.”
The challenge here is making every product different but at the same price. “Our centre is trying to help industry in Ireland achieve that. We want to develop the technologies to make it happen. The technologies we are looking at include big data, cloud computing, IoT, augmented reality, and many others. We will help create the systems where a customer can send information to the factory and a robot will manufacture the product to order and ship it to them.”
The aim is to help Ireland become a leader in smart manufacturing. “This country is already acknowledged as a front-runner in advanced manufacturing and was ranked only behind Switzerland and Germany in this regard by the Roland & Berger Report in 2015. We will have 160 researchers nationally, 100 of them here in UL. We will bring companies and researchers together. Companies can come in and test bed their technologies and solutions. We already have companies working with each other that wouldn’t have done so before. Companies don’t want to share their IP but can come here to discuss issues around manufacturing the product. They can work together on common problems for manufacturing products without infringing the IP.”
The Confirm centre will offer a valuable testing facility to industry. “If you want a company to shut down a production line to try out new research ideas it just won’t happen,” says Prof McCarthy.
“It’s very difficult to try out new stuff. Confirm will allow them to try things out, develop new ideas and devise new technologies. If they are going to fail, they will fail fast. If they show promise they can bring them back to the company when they are more mature. We also have a fundamental research programme where we do exploratory research into the next big things coming down the line. This runs in parallel to the applied research co-funded by our industry partners. Both will contribute to making Ireland a world leader in smart manufacturing.”