Windsor well-positioned to benefit from emerging technologies in manufacturing

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Windsor Star/Dave Waddell


It would seem Gummy Bears and the automotive industry would have little in common. However, a visual inspection system developed by Windsor software firm Radix to spot flaws in metal automotive pieces is proving equally adept at doing the same during production of the popular candy.

“It’s been huge for Dare (Foods) because they don’t have to shut down their production line that makes a tray of Gummy Bears about every eight seconds,” said Shelley Fellows, Radix’s vice-president of operations and a co-founder of the firm with her husband, Ross Rawlings.

“It tells them when they have miss-shaped candy and prevents their trays from literally getting gummed up.

“It saves time and money.”

The Gummy Bear story is just an example of how the emergence of new technology can be used in industries and in ways no one anticipates.

Trying to help local companies anticipate the effects of such disruptive advances is one reason why the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation launched the Emerging Technologies in Automation Conference and Trade Show last year.

This year’s conference at Caesar’s Windsor attracted close to 300 people Tuesday from the technology and manufacturing fields.

“We want our local industry to be at the forefront of innovation rather than be a victim of it,” said development corporation CEO Stephen MacKenzie.

“We’re running this to assist industry and promote what our strengths are. The response has been tremendous.”

Fellows said technology and artificial intelligence are already transforming manufacturing and the pace of change will only quicken.

“We’re going to see advancements in vision systems and machine learning,” Fellows said.

“The capacity to collect detailed data, how to  use it, make recommendations and learn from it is going to quietly transform (manufacturing).”

Such products as Microsoft’s Halo Lens and Google Glass are allowing companies to digitally twin their operations.

The virtual and augmented reality allows for realistic training on equipment without stopping production and for quicker maintenance procedures.

“You can access a repair manual or identify a part while standing right there in front of the machine,” Fellow said. “It’s a wearable computer.”

Such sophisticated equipment also allows companies to identify whether they have consistent flaws in certain production areas.

Robots working side-by-side with humans will also be more common.

Such smart or intelligent manufacturing concepts all fit under the umbrella of what Siemens’ vice-president Michael Gardiner calls Industrie 4.0.

Industrie 4.0 is the industrial blueprint the German government produced in 2011 and is being copied around the world.

“The big trend is the convergence of digital information and physical operations,” said Gardiner, who oversees Industry Strategy and Advance Manufacturing for the international giant.

“It makes for more flexible and efficient manufacturing systems. It’s a game-changer.”

An example of the possibilities is Mind Sphere, a project Siemens and IBM developed together.

It’s an open, cloud-based platform that allows companies to connect their machines and physical infrastructure to the digital world. It connects those machines to billions of smart devices and potential solutions to whatever issue is presented.

“It uses machine learning and algorithms to decide what to do or spot your problem,” Gardiner said. “It’s like having someone help improve your vision.”

Gardiner said the local economy has no need to fear such rapid advancements in technology.

The community’s core economic strengths in automotive, advance manufacturing and agricultural are industries that are driving advances in technology.

“I travel around the world and see what’s being done and I’m very optimistic about the future of this area,” Gardiner said.

“(Technology) is already bringing manufacturing back to the Americas through innovation. You want to be high-value added, innovative and develop intellectual property.

“There’s a lot of innovative companies around here.”

Innovation can also come in business models used in advanced manufacturing.

Innomation Technologies president Trevor Johnson gave a presentation about a machine prototype his firm is developing that would allow the same machine cell to perform more than one type of job.   

“It would be like having an electric drill and just changing the bits,” Johnson said in simplifying the machine’s capabilities.

“Right now in industry it’s one machine, one job. It’s very expensive, especially for smaller shops.

“It could drastically reduce costs because you just buy the machine once. It’s standardized, so that means you could just change the tools and programming, so no need for expensive set-up trips.”

Johnson hopes to have a sellable prototype available early in the New Year.