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Komatsu's smart 5G  factory

 "Komatsu's smart factory" aiming for 5G based on the lessons of "full automation"

The Japanese manufacturing industry faces challenges such as labor shortages, operational efficiency, and skill transfer. The use of 5G is attracting attention as a solution to these issues. Many companies have already drawn concretely what the "future factory" should be with 5G and are preparing for it. Komatsu Ltd. (hereinafter referred to as Komatsu), a major construction machinery manufacturer, is one of them.

From 2020, Komatsu will start a 5G network demonstration experiment at the Awazu Factory in Komatsu City, Ishikawa Prefecture, which is one of the main factories, ahead of the factories nationwide. A SoftBank 5G antenna was set up on the premises, and efforts toward a smart factory were started.

How does Komatsu position the introduction of 5G and what kind of vision is it for the realization of a smart factory? We spoke with Nozomi Okamoto, an executive officer of the company and the manager of the Awazu Plant.

Automation that utilizes human skills

The Komatsu Awazu Factory handles all processes from body design of construction machinery to product evaluation, actual manufacturing, and sales, and is one of the four mother factories in Japan. Since it was founded, it is the largest factory in the company with more than 2,800 employees.

One of Komatsu's characteristics as a construction machinery manufacturer is that it not only designs construction machinery, but also develops components such as engines and gears in-house at domestic factories. The Komatsu Awazu Plant not only handles construction machinery design and production in total, but also develops and produces transmissions, which are the main components, and supplies them to the world. So to speak, it is a factory that can be said to be the "heart of Komatsu."
Regarding the company's manufacturing concept, Mr. Okamoto, the manager of the Awazu factory, said, "Komatsu's strong policy is to integrate development and production. We always use the production line of our own factory from the development stage. The reason is To enable smooth production during mass sales. And to create quality to differentiate from other companies. Because of the technology cultivated over many years in our mass production line, other companies can maintain the strength and quality of parts. It has led to the development of machines that cannot be managed. "

In order to continue Komatsu's unique manufacturing method, it is necessary to streamline operations and reduce production costs. To that end, Komatsu is working on making it a smart factory.

Like many factories in Japan, Komatsu has the problem of labor shortage. For Komatsu, which has the strength of advanced technology by human hands, the current situation where it is difficult for human resources to gather is serious. Then, while retaining human skills, we come to the conclusion that we will solve the labor shortage by automating the work that anyone can do.

In fact, Komatsu has built a fully automated factory about 30 years ago. He didn't take root, but there are lessons learned from it.

"In the past, we built a fully automated factory where parts are automatically delivered to workers when they arrive. However, such a system requires a huge initial investment and is difficult to maintain. Also, once it is made, the system becomes rigid, so even if you want to improve it, you cannot change it flexibly. "(Mr. Okamoto)

Based on these past experiences, Komatsu is currently aiming for a smart factory that has introduced 5G.

Aiming to be a factory that organically connects humans and robots

"At the current Awazu Plant, the processes are dispersed for each cell, and forklifts driven by humans are operating between them.

Some of the work done in each cell is made up of human skills and some is automated by robots. I have always wanted a system that organically connects these into one in the future. The design must be such that humans and robots are organically connected. That was our next challenge. "(Mr. Okamoto)

A factory that has the flexibility to withstand various changes while making the best use of both human skills and robot efficiency. With that in mind, Komatsu focused on "5G communication" technology.

"By improving the accuracy of image recognition with 5G, we will be able to accurately grasp everyone, things, and things in the factory, and we will also be able to control them with AI. In other words, Using 5G and AI, the cells in the factory will be connected in real time and the entire factory can be controlled. That is the form of smart factory that we should aim for.

Therefore, with the cooperation of Mr. Softbank, a 5G base station was set up on the premises of the Awazu Plant. We haven't put it into full-scale operation yet, but we will run AGVs (automated guided vehicles) and AGFs (automated guided vehicles) on the premises of the Awazu Plant to start logistics reforms within the plant. "(Mr. Okamoto)
Komatsu started the utilization of 5G in the form of a demonstration project, and said, "I want to establish the reliability and safety for using 5G in factories."

"We asked Softbank to hold a number of 5G seminars in advance. At first, we didn't really know what 5G could do, but there are many benefits to this. I understand. On the other hand, I can see that I can only do this now.

There is no doubt that 5G will become the infrastructure that supports the foundation of the manufacturing industry in the future. First of all, I would like to make an upfront investment and actually use it while identifying what I can and cannot do.

There are many things to consider when fully introducing 5G at a factory, as it can have a significant impact on quality and safety. While actually using 5G, I would like to find out how to use it in a way that is unique to Komatsu. "(Mr. Okamoto)

Utilization of 5G increases the degree of freedom of factories and contributes to traceability.

With new technologies such as 5G and AI, "the time will come when factory workers themselves control robot programs and control them flexibly," Okamoto says.

"Now, at the stage of purchasing a robot, the manufacturer has programmed in detail how to control the robot. However, even if you want to change the program flexibly, the contents are a black box, so We can't step on.

With the generalization of 5G and AI, it will be possible to program by ourselves who operate the factory by purchasing only the hardware of the robot. At Komatsu, there are also bases where we are doing the work of programming the position control of the robot by ourselves and loading the data into the image recognition system. I believe that 5G will lead to the factory side taking the initiative in the program that was previously on the robot manufacturer side. "(Mr. Okamoto)

In addition, being able to grasp and control the entire factory with 5G means that all data will be accumulated in Komatsu more than ever. Mr. Okamoto says that this is also a merit of utilizing 5G.

“Because we will be able to acquire all the data of the production process, traceability will give us even more depth.“ This machine used by our customers was made at any time, in any factory, and under what conditions. If that happens, the world we can see will change again. "(Mr. Okamoto)

Komatsu will finally make a full-scale smart factory toward the realization of the vision it envisioned.