Upgrading to Industry 4.0

A robot lifting a solar panel in a warehouse.
First Solar

Clemson University is leading a statewide group that will help manufacturers modernize machinery and develop a workforce to operate it as part of a project that researchers said could boost South Carolina’s economy, create high-tech jobs and become a model for the nation.

Researchers said that over the next three years they will turn their focus to machinery that was installed before artificial intelligence, wireless connectivity, cloud computing and other smart technologies were embedded in manufacturing equipment.

The idea is to bring legacy equipment and processes up to speed with newer machines that have the ability to gather massive amounts of data about their performance and then communicate that information to each other and their operators.

Giving machines the ability to communicate and infusing them with smart technology bring a host of benefits, such as greater quality products and the ability to predict when machines need maintenance. When coupled with artificial intelligence, the capability could even allow machines to diagnose their own problems and make their own repairs, researchers said.

The principal investigator on the project is Srikanth Pilla, the Jenkins Endowed Professor of Automotive Engineering and founding director of the Clemson Composites Center.

“In a few years, you could see the entire manufacturing system in the state being connected and having smart technologies in their systems,” he said. “This will help increase energy efficiency and decarbonization, while introducing more smart technologies to manufacturing. All of these are interrelated, and we see the state becoming a leader in this effort.”

The project is funded with $1.8 million from the South Carolina Research Authority and $2.2 million in cost share and brings together several partners, including the University of South Carolina, the Medical University of South Carolina, South Carolina State, Greenville Technical College, Trident Technical College, BMW, Savannah River National Laboratory, CESMII-The Smart Manufacturing Institute, 3D Systems, Maher Advanced Manufacturing, Kistler, Behrtech, CGF, IBM, Cisco and Inductive Automation.

The equipment involved in the project often represents millions of dollars in capital investment for their owners, making it difficult to replace.

Researchers will outfit manufacturing equipment with sensors that measure temperature, vibration and other factors that affect performance and then enable the machines to communicate that information. The types of equipment could include injection-molding, extrusion, casting, machining, stamping and forming machines.

Plans call for researchers to develop an online protocol that integrates the machines, connecting them to the cloud and processing their data with artificial intelligence, so they can more effectively work together, regardless of their age.

Part of the project also involves teaching technicians how to use the upgraded equipment and make sense of the data.

For the researchers, the project is an example of why South Carolina has done so well in manufacturing and represents another step in its continued success.

Almost 90% of products manufactured in the state are exported, and China is the state’s No. 1 customer, said Mark Johnson, the Thomas F. Hash Endowed Chair in Sustainable Development at Clemson and a researcher involved in the project.

“It’s not because we’re competing with lower cost labor in China,” he said. “We have higher technical content than other places. We’re taking all the innovations that are coming out of universities and companies and working together through these public-private partnerships to get that technology into the marketplace so people can most effectively manufacture things and sell them to the rest of the world.”

The project is primarily focused on the state’s small- and medium-sized manufacturers as they upgrade to “Industry 4.0” technology. Industry 4.0 is the idea that the world is starting a fourth industrial revolution that will be defined by artificial intelligence, wireless connectivity, cloud computing and other new technologies, many of which gather and make sense of massive amounts of data.

Zoran Filipi, chair of the Department of Automotive Engineering, said Pilla is well-suited to lead the new research project.

“Dr. Pilla brings to the project rich expertise in manufacturing and the systems that go along with it,” Filipi said. “He is also a skilled team-builder with a wealth of experience in bringing together multiple agencies for maximum impact.”

Among the researchers on the project is Gang Li, a professor of mechanical engineering and associate director of the Clemson Composites Center at Clemson who has worked with Pilla on several previous research projects.

He plans to use modeling simulations to understand the relationships between manufacturing parameters and the quality of the final product. Li will also help identify where sensors should be installed on machinery to ensure they are useful.

“What is exciting to me is the integration of technologies– IT technology, physics-based modeling data science and advanced manufacturing,” he said. “These areas integrate with real manufacturing applications, and it’s part of the reason I wanted to work on this project.”

Rahul Rai, a Dean’s Distinguished Professor of automotive engineering at Clemson, brings to the project a rich background in two key fields– artificial intelligence and machine learning as both apply to manufacturing.

“I also have experience in the domain of retrofitting legacy machines with new sensors and processing the data, using machine learning algorithms to create analytics for the manufacturing domain,” Rai said. “It’s a great fit and why I wanted to be part of this project.”

Also involved with the project is Saeed Farahani, a former Ph.D. student of Pilla and a former employee of the Clemson Composites Center.

“I’m very excited about the project,” he said. “The interesting part is that we’re going to have a holistic approach focusing on equipment, processes and people. You can modernize equipment, but it’s important to involve the people who are going to work with it to get the maximum advantage.”

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said the project reflects the college’s efforts to align resources to help meet industry needs.

“The research team, built on a foundation of public-private partnerships, is well positioned to have a real-world impact and to help fuel South Carolina’s innovation economy,” he said. “I thank the South Carolina Research Authority for supporting this work and offer the team my wholehearted congratulations on the grant. It is well deserved.”

Prepared by Clemson University.