Building the realtime, digital factory

20 July, 2017

Ensuring optimal flexibility while streamlining the construction of the realtime, digital factory

Flexibility is essential in tomorrow’s digitally driven, realtime factory, notes consulting and engineering company Tebodin, in its whitepaper about The Three Success Factors for the Factory of the Future. However, don’t overdo flexibility, but keep it linked to your manufacturing business model and customer needs. Connecting your digital transformation initiatives with process optimization efforts can make them more efficient and successful.

Increased urgency for manufacturing flexibility and scalability

Product innovation, competitive challenges, changing customer needs – many different trends and events can have an impact on what a manufacturer produces. Entry into new markets and geographies can require changes to the product lineup and individual product specifications. Entirely new use cases may present opportunities for meeting customer requirements. A company’s product portfolio may well become more diverse, with variants of certain offerings for the most committed customers.

Increasingly, production companies are also working with contract manufacturers to handle their standardized or less challenging manufacturing workloads while they use their own facilities for making innovative, specialty, and customized products. That means the connected, realtime factory cannot be dedicated to making the same products year after year. It needs to be flexible and scalable to accommodate product and process changes without enforcing unproductive downtimes for reconfiguring the machinery and production lines.

Many avenues to manufacturing transformation

Data from the digital systems and information sources in the production process is critical in making that flexibility possible and in helping a manufacturing company manage equipment changeovers and process changes efficiently while maintaining promised levels of quality. Organizations we know have made great advances in this area. A rich web of system and process integrations between production, logistics, sales, purchasing, service, and other business areas is essential for all of them.

Some of these companies have developed highly creative ways to use software-controlled robots, computer numerical control (CNC) machines, computer-assisted design (CAD), and computer-assisted manufacturing (CAM) systems in connected manufacturing environments that are completely transparent, easily manageable, and also extremely flexible.

Digital innovation does not necessarily entail custom production of expensive, innovative products. While the Tebodin paper emphasizes the profitability of manufacturers that deliver more specialized and high-ticket output as they become digital operations, we also see a clear trend of digitally enabled manufacturers which deliver standardized, mass-produced items that are also innovative and high-quality.

At the current stage of Industry 4.0, companies are charting their own path. There is not much in the way of good precedents that manufacturers can adapt. While some manufacturing industry leaders share part of their journey in becoming digital operations, their experiences may not translate well to other operations. Therefore, companies often find their own solutions to connecting systems and processes and bringing production machinery into digital management domains. That can increase their costs, the time required, and the risk involved.

Keeping the strategic context of processes and business models

When we meet with a company progressing toward Industry 4.0 this way, we may help managers achieve a healthy balance of efficiency and flexibility while remaining customer-centric. Not every factory needs to have the same degree of high flexibility, enabled by custom solutions, to become a digital operation. You might actually overinvest and overequip your factory if you ready it for a level of flexibility that is not required to produce what customers are looking for.

In many cases, companies can accomplish a large part of their digital objectives by making more extensive use of standardized integrations and existing IoT data collection and management tools to ensure optimal data flows and keep the right people informed and in control. You can also use analytics solutions to review your machine histories and production data. Doing so can go a long way toward improving your ability to meet customer requirements and plan the manufacturing of diverse products.

Keep in mind that even the most sophisticated, realtime machine data gathering and analysis needs to happen in the context of your business processes and process optimization efforts to be truly productive. If you don’t make that connection, you may well be able to improve machine uptimes, but any performance and quality improvements may only be limitedly effective, or may even result in unintended consequences.

How do you bring both flexibility and process optimization to the realtime, digital factory? Send me a note at rlcomte@innius.com.

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