The Smart Factory: Value First

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The Smart Factory: Value First

The smart factory offers an inexhaustible range of technical opportunities – but manufacturing companies cannot start using every possible technology all at once, and not every technology is suitable for every company. The starting point should not be the technologies but the goals.

by Antony Bourne

Creating a smart factory provides manufacturing companies with a cornu copia of technologies and – associated opportunities. First and foremost, this includes the networking of machines, plant, and other equipment with IT systems using sensors and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). This network enables manufacturing companies, and others, to increase transparency in their workflows, in turn allowing them to make their processes more efficient and increasing their agility. For example, using a “digital twin”, built using IoT data, allows a virtualized manufacturing workflow to be displayed digitally in real time and planned changes to processes can be tested in the form of “what-if” scenarios. This enables manufacturing companies to optimize their basic workflows and to adapt to new orders coming in at the last minute, or to plans changing at short notice, in a much more flexible way.

Smart factories shouldn’t start with the technology but with how a company wants to give value to its business.

Antony Bourne, is industries president at business software provider IFS

The Smart Factory: Antony Bourne - is industries president at business software provider IFS

Networking also provides them with the chance to improve quality and security on the shop floor by using sensors installed along the assembly lines to identify defects and faults by using physical or optical measurements. If companies also integrate sensors into their employees’ work clothing, they can monitor workers’ movements while they are handling hazardous materials or equipment, for instance, and sound the alarm immediately if an employee has not been active for a certain period of time. It also allows geo-fencing to be used to warn if a worker gets too close to a dangerous machine.

Finally, networking can open up additional revenue sources through new services or business models. “Track your order” services, for example, allow customers to follow the real-time progress of their order in the manufacturing process, giving manufacturing companies the chance to set themselves apart from the competition. The same is true for service-orientated business models in which the customer only pays for a machine when they actually use it, rather than purchasing the entire machine.

Lots to Offer

The smart factory also has an abundance of other technologies to offer alongside the networking of IT systems and manufacturing equipment. These include:

  • 3D printers and additive manufacturing machinery: These allow prototypes to be manufactured at a lower cost and replacement parts to be produced faster.
  • Augmented reality: Employees can use smart glasses to superimpose the information they need for their work directly on a machine. This way, they can be guided efficiently through their work and become more productive because they have both hands free. Company experts are also able to connect to the smart glasses remotely so they can guide less-experienced colleagues through operational or maintenance tasks.

  • Artificial intelligence: Chatbots that are proficient in natural language processing enable users to speak to IT control systems, making communication more efficient. Machine learning algorithms that learn from IoT historical data make predictive maintenance highly efficient. This includes anticipating mechanical faults or failures before they occur and lead to real problems.
  • Physical robots: For example, robots can transport materials or parts to the manufacturing lines, pick up the finished products at the end of the line, and take them to the warehouse.
  • Software robots: Robotic process automation (RPA) can assist in many upstream and downstream processes. This enables production steps to be automated for inventory control, receipt of goods, or invoice verification, for example.

All About Business

It is, of course, impossible for manufacturing companies to introduce all of these technologies at once – and not every technology is suitable for every company. In any case, the transformation into a smart factory should not start with the technology but should begin with how a company wants to benefit and give value to its business. Companies should always define the goals they want to achieve with the transformation before changing anything. Aims could include decreasing costs; increasing efficiency, agility, or security; or becoming more competitive by introducing new services and new business models.

The Smart Factory: Value First

Smart factory features include the networking of people, machines, and IT systems.

Only after careful planning will they be in a position to select the right technologies to support the desired goals and implement those that promise to deliver the largest or fastest return on investment. When it comes to implementing these technologies, the best advice is to start small to begin with and make sure the technologies do actually benefit business in a manageable context. Afterwards, they can then be gradually rolled out across the entire factory.

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