Smart manufacturing in the dark brings light to industry

2021-09-09 09:25:12Xinhua Editor : Wang Yifan ECNS App Download

From steel plates and mobile phones to household motors and rocket ignition device parts, more Chinese enterprises use artificial intelligence (AI) to empower their production lines, introducing a "dark factory" mode of 24-hour uninterrupted and unattended production.

Dark factories, also called smart factories, are entirely run by programmed robots with no need for lighting. It is expected to reduce labor costs, improve production efficiency and product quality, and carry out production under dangerous circumstances to ensure the safety of workers.

To replace people with machines to do high-intensity, repetitive, and even dangerous work is an essential step toward smart manufacturing in China's iron and steel industry. A dark factory of the Baogang Group in northern China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region uses robots to separate the slag from liquid steel. The slag discharge rate was reduced from 10 percent to 9 percent, and the one percentage point could save nearly 100,000 U.S. dollars every year for the factory.

Xi'an Aerospace Propulsion Institute is a research base for China's solid-fuel rocket engines. The production demand at the institute has been growing rapidly with the accelerating development of China's space industry in recent years. Without increasing human and material resources, the institute achieved a 24-hour production mode for rocket ignition parts.

At night, automated equipment carries out the initial processing of parts at the dark factory. During the day, experienced workers give the finishing touches. The collaboration between machines and people doubles the production efficiency.

At a dark factory in Beijing, mechanical arms carefully pinch the two sides of a smartphone screen and fold it repeatedly like human hands. It requires more than 200 steps to make the foldable phone developed by Xiaomi Corporation, most of which are completed by intelligent equipment. According to the company, the dark factory has an annual production capacity of one million smartphones.

Megvii, a Chinese AI unicorn headquartered in Beijing, built a dark factory model workshop for a household motor manufacturer in east China's Zhejiang Province.

Xu Qingcai, senior vice president of Megvii, told reporters that it is typical for AI to empower traditional manufacturers to improve quality and efficiency.

Xu said a smart upgrade includes three aspects. First is the intelligence of a single device. At the dark factory in Zhejiang, Megvii deploys robots to lift cargo. With QR codes and navigation, the robots can locate the cargo precisely, and the robots are simple to be controlled. AI algorithm can also improve the recognition rate of stained and wrinkled QR codes. The factory doesn't need to change new QR codes frequently.

The second is the intelligence of the system. The dark factory in Zhejiang achieved the integration of multiple types of equipment and realized the interaction among warehouse control system, warehouse management system, enterprise resources planning, and production enforcement system.

The third is the intelligence at the scene. AI at a specific production scene can perceive, think, execute and evolve. The brain of the household motor dark factory is an AIoT (AI and Internet of Things) logistics management platform called Hetu developed by Megvii. It can learn and adapt the production scene to realize managing and supervising the equipment and production line as well as allocating some tasks to the machines.

At the 2021 World Artificial Intelligence Conference in July, Xiao Yaqing, Minister of Industry and Information Technology, said that China's AI development had made remarkable progress in industrial applications with deepening integration of AI technologies and real economy businesses.

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