Written by Thomas Spilker

Pt 4: Digital Production in Smart Factories

This is part 4 of a 5-part series about digital manufacturing called Embracing the Power of the Next Industrial Revolution. This blog series explores the different challenges throughout the product lifecycle and how to “go digital” in Industry 4.0.

When manufacturers “go digital,” there are multiple technologies to improve collaboration during ideation, design, and testing. But, design and development is only one piece of product lifecycle management. As part of today’s cost-cutting and timeline-acceleration initiatives, manufacturers must also manage changing customer expectations. Today’s customers also expect faster product release and maintenance cycles. Digital transformation provides exciting opportunities in factories and the shop floor to meet these requirements. 

The Smart Factory

The traditional factory is transforming into a digital, “smart” factory of the future. The smart factory is connected, optimized, transparent, proactive, and agile. Lightweight, flexible, and scalable software systems normalize data and make it accessible for anybody in the organization. With the promise of precise, real-time analytics, manufacturers can improve products and lifecycle management. By leveraging innovative and connecting technologies, manufacturers can:

  • Optimize products
  • Increase quality
  • Lessen waste
  • Provide greater visibility into the manufacturing process

Different sensors, smart devices, and other tools provide massive amounts of data to organizations. However, organizations shouldn’t confuse a smart factory with innovative technology or futuristic equipment. Developing a smart factory is more about making good use of data and analyzing it to obtain performance-improving insights. 

Technologies in the Digital Factory 

To transform into a smart factory, manufacturers must understand which technologies and trends will help them begin gathering critical business data. Although there are a multitude of technologies to choose from, three in particular bubble to the surface for me that provide the greatest potential.

Automation, Robotics, and Machines

Automation has always been part of factories, but today’s automation is becoming more complex and optimized thanks to data collection, aggregation, and sharing. Software tools play a big role in the success of smart factory automation, such as:

  • Visual planning and scheduling software
  • Robotic software
  • ERP connectivity
  • Manufacturing execution systems that monitor people and machines. 

Automation is often seen in the form of robotics and machines. As such, many people worry that automation will replace workers and cause massive job loss. But the effects of automation on employment will be more positive than that. Much of the automation implemented today takes the place of work that is considered mundane, dangerous, or something impossible for humans to perform safely due to harmful side effects such as toxic fumes or extreme temperatures. In this way, robotics and automation are a complement to the current workforce.

Of course, when an organization begins implementing robotics and automation capabilities, leadership teams must carefully consider new training and workflow requirements. The workforce must be closely trained on both traditional training programs and the software tools needed to ensure the factory floor operates smoothly.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Smart Devices

Today’s smart factory is equipped with smart devices and AI-driven tools that collect, record, and transmit vast amounts of data for the enterprise. Devices and sensors are attached to various machines or specific product components. Depending on the sensor and its location, these technologies serve a variety of purposes: 

  • Quality Control: Smart devices and sensors can measure whether a component is functioning within its optimal levels or behaving normally. From a QC perspective, this allows quality teams to automate their processes and detect abnormalities quickly, potentially in seconds or minutes. This allows enterprises to proactively manage equipment failures, optimize products, and keep operations running smoothly. 
  • Visibility: Smart sensors provide current data in real-time, providing a holistic view throughout the supply chain. This vast amount of data can be made available to anybody in the enterprise, which allows organizations to make more accurate decisions immediately. 
  • Data aggregation and analysis: According to one report, AI and smart devices “empower everyone in the organization to conduct their own analyses and create their own reports and dashboards with data aggregated from multiple sources.”

Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) 

On their own, smart devices allow organizations to collect and aggregate data from various sources. Combined into a single network, AI and smart devices transforms into an interconnected Industrial Internet of Things. 

IIoT holds the potential to connect people and operations on the factory floor to all areas of an extended enterprise. The network connects physical objects and manages the interaction with different tools to provide visibility into different company initiatives, such as: 

  • Predictive maintenance
  • Improved safety
  • Operational efficiencies

IIoT is improving agility and productivity in manufacturing. One report from IDC indicated that IIoT deployments improved warehouse and labor productivity by 10-30 percent, improvements in supply chain visibility by 32 percent, and visibility into shipment tracking and inventory availability. 

Careful Planning Before Execution

Manufacturing organizations must develop very specific goals and purposes to aggregating data before implementing automation capabilities and connecting smart devices and sensors into the IIoT. These are very powerful capabilities that enable immense amounts of data to be gathered. Companies run the risk of becoming overwhelmed with data and lacking the ability to act on the results without a deliberate digital strategy.

About Thomas Spilker

Thomas serves as a solution architect, product expert, and voice of the customer for Vertex Software. He has over 30 years of industry experience in 2D/3D visualization and leading teams in developing, deploying, and
training on PLM software solutions. Thomas served as a Siemens PLM Senior Solution Architect and Digital Manufacturing Product Manager for 14 years where he specialized in delivering 3D digital twin, authoring 3D “graphical” manufacturing process plans, and delivering 3D work instructions to the shop floor. His industry expertise includes aerospace and defense, heavy equipment, high-tech electronics, and automotive.