He might not be able to give you next week’s lottery numbers, but Tengyuan Zhang hopes to give Canadian industry a decided advantage by peeking into the future.
Zhang, Associate Director of WIN 4.0 (Western’s Industry Network), is utilizing the latest industry revolution – cyber-physical systems – to give businesses the ability to anticipate what will happen in their facilities and address problems even before they happen.
“We have very a developed Internet system now; everyone and everything is connected,” said Zhang, a research scientist in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. He noted that this era represents the fourth revolution in industry, with the first three being the introduction of steam, electricity and automation.
“4.0 is about utilizing cutting-edge communication and information technologies and integrating them into the production line to allow for higher production, efficiency and lower costs.”
Spawned from Western’s Interdisciplinary Development Initiatives program, WIN 4.0 is hosted within the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and led by professor Jun Yang. It looks to bring industry and academia together in the effort to advance.
The ability to predict the future with reasonable accuracy is a key factor in creating intelligent manufacturing or smart factories, Zhang said. That is not only possible, he assured, but is already happening.
“Previously, you’d be working on a machine and one day it quits. Then for two weeks, you don’t have that machine in operation and have lost millions of dollars,” Zhang said.
“Now, the machine is going to tell you, ‘Hey, I’m going to be offline in about two weeks, so you better get prepared.’ We call it predictive maintenance. With the machines integrated with artificial intelligence and using big data, we can analize and anticipate issues.”
The process utilitizes something called digital twin technology. Provided by Siemens and supported by London-based Longterm Technology Services Inc., digital-twin technology uses a digital replica of physical assets, processes, people, places, systems and devices. The twin then ‘learns’ by integrating artificial intelligence, machine learning and software analytics to create a living digital model that changes as its physical counterpart changes.
“Digital twin is creating a computer simulation to predict what is going to happen down the road by using big data,” said Aaron Guo, President of Longterm Technology Services Inc. “We feel the passion of the students and professors at Western. We needed to be part of that to help businesses move to the next level and have access to the most advanced technology in the market.”
The ability to simulate a change to a current production line without actually making the changes can be a game-changer at minimal cost to the company, Zhang said.
“Before, you didn’t have the ability to know what exactly was going to happen and how much it was going to cost. You don’t want a trial-and-error scenario with the real production line.”
He continued, “Any idea a company may have, let us know and we can tell you what’s going to happen. We control everything. We know the future.”
WIN 4.0 recently partnered with Autotube Ltd., a local manufacturer of tubes and fluid level indicators for automotive application, to explore the use of this technology in levelling up efficiency at their plant. It ended up being “a win-win-win scenario,” he added.
“For Autotube, we see immediate improvement in resource utilization and production efficiency. For Western, students got trained in this real-world project for valuable skills and experience. Western gained a reputation in providing Industry 4.0 solutions to small-medium companies. Siemens and Longterm Technology Services Inc. are excited to see the digital-twin technology get pushed forward in Canada,” said Zhang.
While academic environments is grounded in textbooks, the world can be a bit different outside the classroom, he said. “Real-world projects are challenging for students – but they are much more fun than just sitting in a classroom,” Zhang said.
While the benefits to students are many, businesses know partnerships like these are the solution to many of their problems. “They feel the pressure from everyone. If you stay the same, you’re going to lose. In order to stay competitive, in this fast-changing world, you have to do something and try something new. You snooze – you lose.”