Efficiency is a constant topic of focus for manufacturers. There’s always work to be done to make a process more efficient, but it can be difficult to identify where to start. In this article, Richard Mount, Director of Sales at ASIC design and supply company Swindon Silicon Systems, explores three ways to maximise efficiency in manufacturing, and how custom ICs can help.

Making a whole manufacturing plant more efficient is daunting. Overhauling an entire system is a massive undertaking and can be a significant financial outlay without a clear ROI. So where do you start?

Optimising maintenance

Machine health management company Senseye’s True Cost of Downtime 2022 Report estimates that Fortune Global 500 industrial companies will lose almost £1.3 trillion this year because of unplanned downtime. To minimise this risk, manufacturers are increasingly turning to predictive and condition-based maintenance (CBM) technologies.

These technologies can monitor values for discrepancies that may be indicative of a fault. Vibration, for example, is a commonly used parameter. Highly sensitive vibration sensors can often pick up potential faults — such as misalignments and imbalances — in equipment earlier than other types such as temperature or infrared.

Measuring and monitoring vibration in the plant can be done with the use of MEMS accelerometers. Able to detect imbalances even at low rotational speeds, these accelerometers can register even the smallest changes in vibration for early fault detection. Boasting a high performance in a small size, these accelerometers can be easily distributed throughout the plant for more effective predictive maintenance.

Improved tracking

Keeping tabs on machinery is one thing — but what about materials? Optimising inventory management is possible with the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags placed on objects. Where barcodes make use of a visual scanner, RFID makes use of electromagnetic fields to transmit data, meaning that products don’t need to be in the line of sight to be scanned.

By placing the readers at strategic points throughout the plant, it’s possible to autonomously track the movement of individual items through the production line. RFID tagging allows for complete visibility into product inventory, making it easier to accommodate for changes in demand and supply chain issues. It can also help provide valuable insight into areas that need further streamlining — for example, is there a process that is taking longer than expected? RFID is a very cost-effective technology to employ and doesn’t require a big overhaul of existing infrastructure.

Increasing automation

Many manufacturers have already adopted some form of automation technology, and with it being such a key theme to Industry 4.0 we’re likely to see adoption continue to rise. Equipment like conveyers, pick-and-place machines and even machine tools like lathes and milling machines can now operate with a high level of autonomy.

Yet as more and more processes become automated, there’s a need to further enhance the technology — for the equipment to produce more, in less time, with minimal waste. Sensors are at the heart of enabling automation; linear and rotary position sensors provide accurate position detection, and proximity sensors enable machinery to detect the presence of other objects. So, what can be done to enhance their performance?

Bespoke electronics

Building industrial sensors that can offer a truly optimised performance starts with design effort at chip level. In general, a smart sensor is comprised of the sensing element, signal conditioning, microprocessor, and communications. Many sensors produce analogue signals, which are conditioned, processed and converted into digital signals for processing. This process of signal conversion and digitisation is typically performed by a standard IC.

But it’s possible to replace this with an Application Specific IC, or ASIC. An ASIC is a chip that has been specifically designed for its destined application, allowing it to have sensor and application-specific performance for an optimised solution.

Another ASIC benefit over COTS can be reduced power consumption. The design of the chip has a part to play; an optimised design will have minimal active components and unused performance, therefore reducing the required power.

As manufacturers seek to further improve efficiencies, there’s a need for the underlying technologies to continue to improve too. With the inclusion of bespoke electronics, it’s possible to optimise across every inch of the plant; building what will become the factories of the future.