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Transformation 2: Digital Factory

Within a digital factory, digital technologies help realize the company’s objectives by supporting the employee/operator. A digital Factory of the Future also guarantees the availability of relevant data at the right moment at the right place.

Manufacturing SMEs nowadays use digital technologies both in product development and production. One of the important requirements is to make sure that each data item gets entered only once into the system (single source of truth),     after which all applications then retrieve the needed data automatically to create new information.

Executing the ADMA scan, close to 200 European manufacturing SMEs have assessed their maturity on  seven Factory of the Future related digital topics (see graph below).

Secure digital infrastructure

From the different topics, “Secure digital infrastructure” was scored highest by the companies, as far as maturity within this topic is concerned. An important note to be made here is the fact that small and medium sized SMEs rate themselves a maturity level close to 2,8 whereas micro SMEs (less than 10 employees) only score themselves an average of 1,3.

Data are to be considered an important asset that has to be protected and for which trusted data exchange systems need to be ensured. The level of awareness around this topic definitely can be further strengthened within any manufacturing SME. Manufacturing organisations of course have to deploy cybersecurity technology, such as gateways, firewalls, DMZ setups, ACM and/or anti-malware protection to protect their data. This requires all employees (and not only the ICT department) to be aware of cybersecurity issues and the associated risks within a digital factory. Given the specificity of this topic, dedicated expertise is required. For many SMEs this implies collaborating with external experts.

Interested to know more about how Silicon Valley tackles Industrial Cybersecurity? Read here the findings of some Belgian and Dutch manufacturing SME’s that went on a study trip to the Valley last year.

Digital tools to support the operators in their tasks

Due to the changing market demands, complexity in both product development and production has increased. To manage this complexity, operator support tools are needed. Digital tools – providing the right information at the right time – play a crucial enabling role.

The topic of “Digital operator support” scores second highest in the ADMA scan (see graph above). In many companies, at the different workstations, digital work instructions are becoming available. Most of the times an assigned employee ensures that the information available is up to date, using information from central systems like ERP, CAD, PDM, etc. as much as possible.

In the future, more and more companies will implement and train their employees on working with a digital toolkit, also sometimes called ‘the digital assistant’. This assistant has two primary objectives:

  1. to suggest the optimal (machine) settings or parameters to ensure each process step can be performed as efficiently as possible.
  2. Provide access to customised procedures and instructions, taking operator specifics into account (for example his/her experience level, language skills, etc.).

The range of digital (mobile) devices that can be used to support the operator when performing their task(s) is continuously increasing. The selection of the device mainly depends on the type of tasks performed by the operator (interior or exterior, at a mobile or fixed location, etc.) and the speed at which the information has to change, as well as the compatibility of the ‘digital tools’ with the specific tasks performed by the operator. Discover here which practical solutions are used for different types of production tasks.

Connected shop floor to enable data exchange

Within a digital factory, data is used to optimize the different processes. However, collecting relevant data and using these data in the best way to generate added value, requires a connected shop-floor.

Connecting shop floor entities (machines, equipment, people, …) and applications is considered a challenge for many manufacturing SMEs. On the other hand, connecting legacy machines (i.e. older machines) has nowadays become more easy (e.g. by including smart sensors, dedicated IoT connectivity modules, etc.) and tracing of components and products is becoming more and more implemented (e.g. through QR codes, RFID tags, …). The connected shopfloor results in the availability of relevant product and production data to be used for optimization purposes.

A nice example of how people get supported through connected shop floor data can be found @ the Duracell plant in Aarschot (Belgium). More information on how to set-up a connected shopfloor can be found here

Machine Learning, being a subset of both Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, is a hot (hyped!?) topic where a lot of value for the manufacturing world is being promised, but only few real-life, practical cases are under development right now.

If you want to get a basic business and technical understanding of Machine Learning, incl. some first practical industry cases, please don’t hesitate to sign up for the first free online AI-course by and for companies in Europe.

Integration of different ICT applications

Connectivity is not only needed on the shopfloor (connecting machines), but also on the level of applications (ERP, MES, PDM/PLM, …). When looking at the scan results, it can be seen that companies rate themselves the lowest (ADMA maturity score of 2,28) on this topic. Also here a clear difference must be noted between the bigger (average score of 2,3) and the micro-SMEs (score of 1,56). However, smooth integration of different existing ICT-applications is very important (avoid redundancy of data, manual operations, data quality issues, etc.).

For most companies, the implementation of an ERP-system is the first step towards integration of different applications. The ERP system is a stable base to start integrating other applications (e.g. planning, inventory management, production monitoring, maintenance, …). When integrating these applications, careful attention should be spent on assuring that:

  • A unified, standardised approach is being used to integrate those different applications,
  • Ideally, a central database is used to store all data (all applications can use this data) in an open way
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