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Challenges of a smarter future

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We’re all familiar with smart phones, smart homes, hell we even have smart kettles, but when it comes to control, what happens when we get ‘smart’ on an industrial level? As the buzz surrounding the smart factory continues to snowball, what exactly is it that makes them so dang clever? Gavin Stoppel, product manager, digital solutions at Harting Ltd tells us more.

What exactly makes a factory ‘smart’? 

A factory is made smart when engineers gain the ability to easily identify where pain points are in the facility. For example, if they can understand and predict when machines are going to fail, they can implement predictive maintenance. 

Many facilities already have automated processes in place, such as existing control systems and PLCs, but they might not have access to all the valuable data these systems produce. To understand the difference between a smart factory and a regular factory, we need to look at the differences between Industry 3.0 and Industry 4.0. 

Industry 3.0 delivered the advent of computers and robotics, connecting you to your environment. Industry 4.0 takes this development a step further, allowing you to see what happens, understand what happens and be prepared for it when it happens.

Has there been a particular catalyst for the rise in smart factories?

In part, the rise of smart factories can be linked to the rise of, and increased access to, ‘Big Data’. Previously, insights from this level of complex information were restricted to large corporations with big budgets, but recent advancements mean this technology has become more and more affordable. 

From a production viewpoint, customer demands for flexible processes and smaller batch production means manufacturers needed the flexibility to change processes quickly. Utilising Industry 4.0 practices in your factory gives you the ability to produce customised products using mass production processes, opening up new markets and ventures for your business.

So, how do they work? 

The advent of edge computing devices, which are compact, robust, small and low cost, gives you data processing at the field level. Because they use an open source environment, this provides easy connectivity to standard communication methods. In other words, you have the flexibility to choose the method that works for you, whether that’s via a database or the cloud. 

What makes a successful smart factory, or moreover, what can doom one to fail? 

Using unsuitable solutions is one of the main reasons for failure. For example, using Wi-Fi in an environment which is not conducive to wireless data transfer. This could be due to the size of the environment or the presence of lots of steel and concrete, which can inhibit wireless signals. Therefore, it’s important to carefully consider which solutions suit your business. 

In order to meet future demands, what is your run of the mill factory lacking? 

Essentially, traditional manufacturing needs the functionality to gather and analyse production data via an intelligent management system. Each machine in the plant generates its own data which in turn needs to be stored and analysed. This data then needs to be seamlessly communicated along the production process, from the shop floor to the management system. By implementing intelligent devices, factories can monitor and control the whole process remotely.

For the uninitiated, how would you go about creating one of these facilities? 

The best approach is to appoint a member of your team as a ‘digital champion’, someone to manage the project who understands the processes, but is willing to think outside the box and not be phased by teething problems or issues, as these can often provide great insights. Start small and decide what it is you wish to achieve and what solution will provide the greatest ROI for your business. For example, could flexible production open up new markets for you, or would predictive maintenance for your machines save you from costly downtime issues? 

You also need a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve beforehand, rather than collecting data for the sake of it. Get a pilot project up and running which can be expanded and added to as you get used to the technologies. In terms of technology, each factory or manufacturer is different and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are individual solutions which can be replicated and scaled up or down as required. Ultimately, careful research and discussion with technology suppliers is essential to ensure you get the correct solution for your business.

How cost effective is a smart factory? Is it easier to build one from the ground up, or retrofit an existing non-smart facility?

It can be extremely cost effective if you use the above approach; if it is managed carefully and the processes are put in place in a clear and structured way with a well-defined strategy. However, it is much easier to build a smart factory from the ground up, as modern infrastructure is now incorporating digitalisation as a standard. Existing legacy machinery can be difficult to incorporate as part of a smart factory, hence the need for a clear strategy that incorporates a gateway infrastructure and meets growing digitalisation needs. 

Is the prospect of a smart factory accessible to everyone? How easy is it to do? Do companies like yourselves offer advice as well as equipment?

Yes, scalable projects and inexpensive equipment opens this service up to everyone. For example, our first step would always be to visit the site in question in order to accurately assess your needs into the feasibility of embracing digitalisation at that facility. We have many years of expertise in this area and will only recommend solutions that work for you. In addition, we have integration partners who can guide you through the whole implementation process from installation at the field level to integration into the MES ELP and cloud environment. 

In your opinion, are factories/companies that shun the upgrade taking a risk with their business? 

That’s certainly a possibility. In response to changing markets, companies are embracing digitalisation, making them leaner and more efficient, which enables them to decrease operational expenditure (OPEX) and increase overall equipment efficiencies (OEE). This in turn allows them to improve throughput times, optimise resources and reduce machine downtimes, essentially making them more competitive in the marketplace. As a result, businesses which don’t embrace digitisation could find themselves being left behind.  

Finally, what do you think the future looks like for the manufacturing process?

Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) is an incredibly exciting area of development and more and more manufacturers of wireless sensors are starting to embrace this technology. Currently, engineers are developing more cost-effective smart sensor solutions, which brings condition monitoring into the Industrial Internet of Things environment. 

For example, this new technology allows temperature and humidity levels to be closely monitored remotely, which has applications for a wide range of industries, such as temperature-critical logistics. Within manufacturing, I think the next steps will be the ability to measure shock and vibration levels on portable machinery and remote diagnostics of wear and tear.


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