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Industry 4.0 automation

Considering various steps in the shoemaking process where automation is taking hold and explores where these might fit together within smart factories of the future.

by Jake Locke

Image © PhonlamaiPhoto | Dreamstime.com

Some form of factory automation is now fairly common, but whether or not a true fourth industrial revolution will come to the footwear industry anytime soon is a hotly debated subject. Automation can be described as the use of a control system to operate objects – for example, machinery or processes in factories and offices. Such control is gradually developing from robotic process automation, which still requires fairly high levels of human intervention, to fully autonomous artificial intelligence (AI) that will drive adaptive, self-learning and intuitive machines.

Autonomy is the storyboard for the smart factory where a cyber-physical internet of things communicates and cooperates to support humans and to make decentralised decisions. This environment of the future is often referred to as the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0. In the UK – the birthplace of the first industrial revolution – the government has stated that this fourth industrial revolution “has the potential to create impressive, new and sometimes unimaginable business opportunities for those who are innovative and agile.”

So, what might Industry 4.0 and the emerging digital supply chain mean for the footwear industry that has its roots in one of the oldest crafts in the world and where many of the materials and techniques are still used today?

The four industrial revolutions

The first industrial revolution took place during the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and America. The development of the steam engine, along with growth in the iron and textile industries, played central roles.

The second industrial revolution – between around 1870 and 1914 – was a period of growth for electricity, oil and steel production. Major technological advancements included the internal combustion engine, light bulb, phonograph and telephone.

The third industrial revolution – also known as the ‘digital revolution’ began during the 1980s and saw the advancement of technology from analogue electronic and mechanical devices to modern digital technology.

The fourth industrial revolution ('industry 4.0') builds on the digital revolution. This era is marked by emerging technology breakthroughs in such fields as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, biotechnology, quantum computing, nanotechnology, robotics, the internet of things and 3D printing.

Industry applications

Aside from fashion, a major consideration in the purchase of footwear is comfort. The number one shoe comfort factor is fit which, in turn, is largely determined by the last on which it is made. Traditionally, last assessment is a time-consuming manual process. However, a digital last assessment procedure is capable of assessing three-dimensional (3D) lasts in computer-aided design (CAD) software. A 3D CAD design can be assessed, adjusted and re-assessed, thus creating a last which has precisely the dimensions desired for a specific item of footwear before the first real last is produced. In addition, the last does not need to be physically transported. The file can be sent wirelessly to a computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) machine anywhere in the world, which will then automatically create it. A robot powered with the relevant algorithm could then perform fully automated quality and variability checks before adding it to the production line. Such an automated approach would benefit development time, cost and, of course, fit and comfort. If the concept of digital assessment is also applied to the retail end of the supply chain where consumer feet are 3D scanned, a real-time positive data feedback loop can be created to help the continual and automated improvement of footwear design and production and, ultimately, consumer comfort.

Artyom Medvediev | iStockphoto.com

Virtual fitting rooms may link directly to smart factories

Leather has traditionally been the main material of choice in footwear. Textiles and other materials, however, now account for a large part of many shoes produced today. While textiles have been mass-produced quickly and cheaply since the industrial revolution, the weaving of natural or artificial yarns or threads to create technical textiles is more recent. This is especially popular in sports footwear as brand owners constantly seek to improve performance characteristics – such as water-resistance and breathability. New textile technologies promise to do far more than that. Three-dimensional knitting opens up the possibility of manufacturing a finished product in one continuous process. Design can be translated into code and fed into a machine with the required yarn or thread. The machine can then get on with the job of producing something tailored to an individual size and shape.

A knitted upper, for instance, can be produced to have curvature in three-dimensional space in both the plane across the toe shape of the footwear and the plane along the forepart area. With seamless uppers, there is less risk of defects and damages appearing. In addition, multi-layer knitted fabrics can be produced, with each layer providing its own properties and, in turn, functional benefits. If this is combined with design engineering to modify the geometry of the cross section, fabric properties can be controlled to a level not seen before. Prototyping then becomes a fast and easy process. Adjustments to structural stability, biomechanical performance, breathability and fit can be made through the manipulation of the 3D knit. In turn, this process can be automated if it is integrated with 3D scanning at the consumer interface.

Reducing errors

Automation would also reduce the risk of manufacturing errors in the pattern cutting and stitching processes and, in turn, improve the reproducibility of identical products. Processing time would be shorter and material and product waste reduced. Further improvements may possibly involve using recyclable thread, thus creating a fully recyclable product with an automated ‘cradle-to-cradle’ product cycle.

Digitised design, last assessment or knitting can improve aspects of footwear and production, while still using traditional materials, however, things can get really interesting when 3D printing is also introduced. Taking a subjective view of many conventional methods of manufacturing, it would be easy to reach the conclusion that they are rather wasteful. A worker starts with a large piece of material (perhaps leather, wood or metal), out of which he or she cuts, drills or carves a much smaller product. Any excess material is discarded, most of which may never be reused or reclaimed. By comparison, 3D printing allows a CAD file to be output directly to a machine that will form a product entirely automatically, without traditional materials and without waste. The 3D printing manufacturing process also presents the designer with more opportunities to create unique, innovative footwear with designs so intricate as to preclude their manufacture by conventional means. If this is brought together with ‘virtual fitting rooms’ based on augmented reality, fashion trends could be quickly integrated into product development for custom-made footwear in an integrated and more sustainable manufacturing environment.

With AI, this could perhaps lead to self-learning machines that adapt constantly to evolving consumer taste, foot size and demand. If this were taken further, the products themselves could perhaps become ‘smart’ and send back information by telemetry. Any generated data is likely to be cloud-based, with companies increasing their investment in data analytics and knowledge management. The static report will be replaced by live and constantly changing custom dashboards in the quest for meaningful information that will make a difference and gain that competitive edge. For example, a traditional meeting in which factory managers bring along their figures for hourly production, global manufacture, efficiency and productivity, could be replaced by an ‘always on’ dashboard to provide this information and be more accessible to anyone anywhere in the world. The meeting time itself could be used for something more creative.

Entire product supply chains may become emancipated if systems and processes like enterprise resource planning (ERP) and product lifecycle management (PLM) start to speak the same language and data share with the ultimate goal of zero inventory loss, zero leftover stock, zero lost sales opportunity and zero waste. The death of some old business models and the emergence of some new ones should be expected. For instance, retailers may venture upstream to take more control of the design and production of the products they sell.

The ways for harnessing automation, ‘big data’ (data sets that are too large or complex for traditional data-processing application software to adequately deal with) and AI will develop across the board. As they do, every industry will discover ways to integrate itself with data sets in other industries and operations. By its ubiquitous nature, footwear has a very broad market demographic. Users of footwear are found everywhere, and their purchasing habits can be influenced by a variety of external pressures. Aside from fashion, travel and health are just two industries that could have an effect on people’s choice on what shoes they put on their feet. Overall lifestyle considerations and a concern for the environment will also have a part to play. As technology and automation also become established in these areas, there will be opportunities for the smart footwear factory to communicate with and draw from feedback loops in these other industries, and vice versa.

Self-diagnosis?

At the machine level, ongoing maintenance could be greatly improved by automation. As an example, a machine could recognise by itself that it was not performing correctly and could order its own maintenance (rather than waiting for a human operator to put in a request). If the machine was connected to a predetermined motion time system (such as a future version of SATRA TimeLine), the system could automatically know that the throughput of that line would be reduced. It could make the necessary calculations and adjustments to maintain maximum production efficiency with the resource available, and the materials and labour required in real time. If numerous machines and systems were interconnected and communicated as part of a smart factory, any ‘dead points’ could be brought back into operation at just the right time to keep the ever-changing ebb and flow of production fully optimised without waste – and all without a clipboard in sight.

Advances in technology will also affect research and testing. In the future, there could be distributed and interconnected virtual networks, with intelligent test machines and procedures learning from specific product testing, and thereafter feeding into an ongoing product improvement plan.

Everything is lining up to disrupt traditional models in the most unexpected and exciting ways. Companies are already experimenting with AI and data to produce better targeted and more efficient products which are, in turn, delivered more quickly. There may even be an opportunity for customers to use data and AI to create companies that produce the things they want. With great computing power and innovation increasingly accessible through cloud services, and with new agile approaches, mobile technologies and open crowdfunding practices, the motivated market would be in a position to influence business development as never before. Could it mean the end of the company as it is known today, replaced with a live and dynamic network of collaborations constantly forming and disbanding as required, the whole thing one integrated, positive feedback loop learning and improving with a sense of renewed collective purpose? Alternatively, could it swing the other way with only a handful of ‘super companies’ being in a position to implement Industry 4.0 to its full potential? Or will state intervention and regulation rule the day and determine who will receive investment and support?

All this, of course, is highly speculative and perhaps, some would say, science fiction. Ambitious visions may lead to dead ends, while the more mundane could open up into abundant fields where there is a practical and profitable application of innovation. Either way, things will change. If automation is embraced by the footwear industry, it could at the very least offer flexibility and the chance not just to respond to the market, but also to influence it by the very nature of the smart factory. It also presents an opportunity for regions that previously lost manufacturing to offshore mass production to kick-start a new generation of local custom demand-based production. Initially, a balance will need to be found between the automation and the valuable artisanal skills that could easily be destroyed and lost. Right now, progress is being made left, right and centre, but it still remains a challenge for a robot to put a lace into a shoe.

How can we help?

Please email research@satra.com for further information on possible applications of industry 4.0 automation within footwear-producing companies.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 34 of the December 2018 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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