Steps to the smart factory

Shockingly, half of manufacturers state they either have no plans to implement digital technologies or are unsure of how to go about it — that’s according to the Annual Manufacturing Report 2019. Despite this, 74 per cent say they can see the operational and financial benefits these technologies offer. Clearly, there’s confusion on how to effectively deploy digital tools. Here, Martyn Williams of industrial software provider, COPA-DATA, provides some guidance.

Have you visited a manufacturing trade show lately? Exhibitions are a hot bed for flaunting extravagant automation systems — most of which are out of reach for small to medium-sized manufacturers. Highly intricate amalgamations of equipment often mirror scenes of science fiction, rather than the reality of most manufacturing sites. But, is this scale of deployment really necessary?

Mind the overhaul

A smart factory refers to any manufacturing facility with enhanced levels of connectivity, visibility or autonomy. Put simply, you don’t need an entire system overhaul to achieve smart factory capabilities.

Consider a biscuit production site as an example. Rather than relying on human operatives to manually turnover trays of cooked digestive bases, a simple automated conveyor could be deployed to mechanically flip the biscuits onto a tray of melted chocolate. By improving its autonomy, the factory is smarter.

Admittedly, increasing throughput of chocolate digestives isn’t as mind-blowing as some robotic demonstrations at Advanced Engineering or Hannover Messe — unless of course, you’re a serious McVitie’s enthusiast. However, small investments like these shouldn’t be overlooked.

Consider compatibility

Making small automation purchases is an ideal way for SMEs to begin a smart transformation. But, before reaching for the company credit card, they must consider how this new technology will interact with legacy equipment. 

There’s no denying that, let’s say, installing a six-axis robot with 0.2 second cycle times will improve productivity — or in our theoretical example, increase the speed that biscuits are picked and packaged. But, can existing production equipment keep up?

Ultimately, increasing productivity is only effective if the entire production line can maintain this newly improved pace. Palletising 6,000 digestives per minute might be impressive, but this high speed is rendered useless if the primary mixing machine will only combine enough dough for 2,000 biscuits per minute.

Any good systems integrator will advise on this before automation is installed, but it’s important to consider the whole production line before making an investment. 

Besides equipment compatibility, there’s plenty of other factors to consider when making a hardware investment. Employee training, maintenance and installation problems are just a few examples. Despite this complexity, an Industry 4.0 report by PwC states that manufacturers intend to spend the majority of digitalisation investments on hardware, rather than software.

Software comes first

Regardless of the increase, or lack of, new hardware in the factory floor, software for data visualisation is essential to let employees make informed decisions about production. Providing it is hardware independent, smart factory software can be integrated onto all existing equipment to monitor the performance of each process in a facility — whether it is manufacturing biscuits, chemicals or pharmaceuticals.

When visualised on a graphical display, this data can allow operators to make smart decisions on how to improve production. For instance, should there be a delay between biscuits completing in the cooling machine and the next hot batch arriving, there could be opportunities to save energy.

Identifying potential faults, increasing performance and improving product quality can also be achieved by providing an operator with real-time insight into what’s happening with each piece of equipment — now that’s smart.

Considering the media hype around manufacturing digitalisation, it is shocking half of manufacturers are yet to implement digital technologies. Despite common misconceptions, achieving smart factory rewards doesn’t require sci-fi worthy overhauls. In fact, achieving improvements to productivity, quality and performance can be as simple as software installation.

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