Smart Factories and agile production

Running production at peak efficiency is no doubt the holy grail for any manufacturing facility - what business doesn’t want to optimize their operations and reduce overheads without resulting in a loss of quality? The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has the potential to make this a reality as we connect more services and devices in real-time in the sector. These innovations can enhance production systems, automize processes and connect manufacturers to their supply chains and consumers more closely. In the long run, this enables ultra tight feedback loops as the production facility can respond to both internal performance and market need in real-time.

However, a complex mix of staffing, materials and supply & demand logistics means that this is no simple transition. In this blog we explore the key stages necessary in creating a Smart Factory, the effect this could have on operations and some of the sectors leading the journey.

The infrastructure: sensors, data and analytics

As with any new infrastructure, the right preparation is key. In this case, collecting operational data is the foundation needed for any Smart Factory. Advances in sensor technology, robotics and cutting-edge processing machinery means there is a wealth of information available but without setting up a method to collect, store and process this data in realtime, later actions will have limited impact. Cloud hosting, robust servers and stable software are essential tools here.

Connectivity is the next important stage of development. Even with a solid structure in place for collecting data, the danger is that the information remains in isolated data silos or back-and-forth interactions per system or per machine. To achieve real impact, data from across the production facility must be able to interact in real time – combining IIoT and edge computing with the connectivity speeds capable with 5G allow for rich data lakes to be created. Only once this architecture is in place can advanced analytics and AI automation be applied to discover new insights and optimize efficiency.

Agile manufacturing with Smart Factories

One of the immediate internal benefits that can be realized with a Smart Factory set-up are the agile reactions it allows. For instance, maintenance is a major endeavour for any factory, but imagine if this could all be automated - with predictive and responsive maintenance where routine checks are carried out, new parts are automatically ordered, alerts sent with any breakage. Although robotics are already heavily used in production, integrating this technology within a Smart Factory model means things can be taken a step further - automated controls can be used not only for the specific robot, but to respond to other cues from across the production line.

The other major efficiency comes with agile reactions to external cues. Products, storage and distribution can all be optimized to react to supply and demand in real time - which lines are receiving the most sales? In which location? How quickly are sales being made? Perhaps your warehouse is running low on a particular product -- responsive automation would allow the production link to automatically prioritize particular products or volumes in response.

However, although AI and automation are undoubtedly powerful, the importance of the human factor cannot be ignored. An astute understanding of the business model and objectives are necessary to define the correct processes, parameters and metrics for the AI software to train on and respond to - without the human expertise involved any Smart Factory is likely to have limited results.

The first wave of Smart Factories is here

In Oulu, Finland, Nokia’s production site has managed to improve productivity by 30% and bring products to market 50% more quickly. Their success has been due to their willingness to adopt a whole-digital approach to their production, from design through to sales, and utilizing the latest technologies to secure in-factory connectivity, edge cloud and IoT analytics.

Aside from impacting cost models, German digital farming specialists BASF and Ontera inc have been trailblazing progress that demonstrates how Smart Factories can support both the company and client. Farmers use AI software which operates through their smartphone to help detect disease within their crops. This information is fed back to the chemical production plant which automatically produces the correct molecular formula to tackle the disease or environmental pressure detected. This solution not only provides farmers with critical information to improve their yields, but also limits waste and unnecessary pesticide treatments as the chemical plant only produces what is needed for each farm site.

Where to invest for the future?

To achieve this ambitious future of Smart Factories which automizes internal processes, responds to external demands and strives for optimum efficiency, all manufacturing plants need to be aware of both the necessary hardware, the software and the expertise of how best to apply these tools.

Any update to business processes will have associated costs, digital or otherwise. However, the risks of not implementing these advances in production facilities will quickly result in companies which are not competitive in the market when we’re talking about such massive jumps in efficiency - imagine what impact a 50% decrease in time to market would mean from your direct competitors?

For legacy companies who aren’t digitally native, the costs may seem daunting, but is there anything worse than going bankrupt? And who knows, you may just end up producing a production model such as BASF which helps pass the power of data back to the community.

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