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The Kitchener, Ont., factory of the Woodbridge Group is crowded with robots that install parts in the injection-moulded cavities of car seats. Each robot is fitted with sensors that monitor the distribution and internal pressure of the polypropylene foam it pumps into the seats.

These robots are smart, but they’re about to get much smarter. Over the next two years, Woodbridge, one of the world’s largest vehicle seat manufacturers, plans to deploy thousands more sensors that will track details such as energy use, downtime and waste produced. These devices, in turn, will be connected to a network that continually gathers performance data and runs it through a series of algorithms. “We’ll use big data analysis to find relationships and trends that can further refine our manufacturing process,” says Bob Magee, chair of Woodbridge.

Sensors on assembly-line robots will soon track everything from energy use to down time to waste.

mark sommerfeld

Woodbridge chief information officer Hassan El Bouhali, who is heading the transformation effort, says the longer-term goal is to automate production lines so that the plant’s robots can rapidly alter product specs, enabling the company to meet demand for short runs of highly customized seats and other foam-based auto parts.

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The Kitchener facility serves as a kind of smart-factory lab that tests whether the technologies produce sufficient productivity gains to merit deployment across Woodbridge’s 60 plants worldwide – a process Magee expects could take 20 years. “We haven’t always won on some computing projects,” he admits. “You can lose yourself in the size and complexity of these initiatives.”

Magee also wants to understand the impact on the workforce. While he says growing automation will require a labour “step change,” Magee is heartened by reports such as a recent conversation with a visiting German manufacturer. At that executive’s plant, every job was automated during a smart factory overhaul, but the workforce also grew from 270 to more than 600. The reason? The plant’s output increased fivefold.

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