Zhongshan, China — There's data. There's automation. And then there's intelligent manufacturing. And woe unto the management team that confuses them, says new CEO David Hunter at China's Star Rapid Ltd.
"Intelligent manufacturing means, in simple terms, humans and machines in harmony. Automation is a very small part of it," Hunter said. "It's very easy to over-automate and lose flexibility."
Flexibility is very much on the mind of the smallish — current headcount: 288 — British-owned but China-based company whose services include rapid prototyping, rapid tooling and small-run injection molding.
Hunter joined the company in July to lead a two-year plan to implement what he calls "fully integrated intelligent manufacturing" — the term he prefers to Industry 4.0 — that links everyone from suppliers to customers.
Whatever it's called, Star's move is a sign that such next-generation manufacturing processes are picking up steam in China, traditionally the home of low-cost manufacturing. Facing rising costs, the country is increasingly trying to replace that business model with its "Made in China 2025" industrial upgrade strategy.
"Our objective is to have a fully automated, fully connected factory by August 2020. Machine to machine, machine to human," said Hunter, a Londoner with two decades of experience in Chinese manufacturing. "Customers will be able to tap into the system at any time and see where their project is. Our suppliers will have access, so we can have automatic replenishment driven by the system."
Right now, though, he's firmly focused on internal processes at the company's facility, in the city of Zhongshan, about 50 miles northwest of Hong Kong.
"We're connecting our equipment with our servers and our systems so that we can pull real-time data from our machines," he said. "This eliminates people filling in spreadsheets and checklists. We'll have all that data come directly from the machine."
A key is collating the data — "the running parameters of the machine, the heat, the pressure, cycle time, the shots from the tool" — so it's usable on the shop floor, said Hunter, most recently vice president of operations and quality at Zhuhai-based flexible- and printed-circuits manufacturer Multek, a subsidiary of Flex Ltd.
The process is "really driven by the engineers and the operators," he said. "It's what do we need to do as a management team to make their jobs easier and more successful," he said. "Most organizations can produce terabytes of data but not understand what it's telling them."
After that, Hunter plans to lead Star Rapid into the bold new worlds of augmented reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
"AR [with special glasses and iPads] means we can train people on a machine without the machine," Hunter said.
A quality control pilot project is underway to use a camera to spot defects, he said: "You have to train the equipment, of course, but it's continuous improvement, continuous learning."