The Future of the Paperless Factory


Michael Ford, Sr. Director Emerging Industry Strategy, Aegis Software

pieces of paper flying into a computer
pieces of paper flying into a computer

Eliminating paper in manufacturing, also known as the Smart Factory or Industry 4.0, is just the first step of the digital revolution. There has been a significant transformation when we compare modern-day printed material to that of our ancestors’ early drawings of shapes, symbols, and pictures on cave walls. The next step of this advancement is more than just becoming ‘paperless.’ Transferring physical media into the digital domain, a crucial element of our digitalized Smart factory, provides a far more significant fundamental change. The future of ‘Paperless Manufacturing’ environment is much more than just eliminating paper from manufacturing.

The Hidden Costs of Paper in Manufacturing

Paper does have some advantages. It can be used almost anywhere without the need for internet or power supply. Paper does not change like digital media storage, and if stored correctly, it can last for a very long time without any problems. Many people still consider paper to be a permanent record. However, there are some significant limitations and expenses. Usually, paper cannot be read by more than one person at a time. Paper can easily be lost and must be located to read it. Paper can easily be copied, but it becomes more difficult to control the versions. A more significant problem than these issues, just cited, are the costs related to ISO document management and certification which is mandated by the industry. Managing paper files costs much more than people expect. In reality, billions of manufacturing records are stored. Once the paper document is finally found, there is usually an extensive manual search within the document to find the required information. Losing or misplacing paper happens quite frequently. The content can be altered or deleted.

What Do Paperless ‘State of The Art’ Factory Solutions Look Like Today?

Support drawings or lists of information are unnecessary to digitally describe a product in production engineering terms with the use of True digital technologies. A ‘digital twin’, which is an exact replica of the product, can now be generated by software modelling which enables the product data to be analyzed precisely and digitally processed for any use-case. By digitally replicating the data, New Product Introduction (NPI) software creates production process ready data, by digitally converting this data along with the local bill of materials information and process specifications. Manual assembly and test processes are also supported by the same digital twin model. Additionally, when an organization is truly digital, documentation can be produced instantly when leveraging standard templates. Digital documentation, required for manufacturing, can be managed and displayed by an MES system at many stages during production. Nowadays it is very inexpensive to place computers at important locations to display electronic documentation. Precise and accurate information, compliance and version control, and even noting any minor but crucial differences from prior versions are benefits provided by the best-in-class MES systems. Furthermore, electronic documentation can be generated for any maintenance performed and material logistics. In this type of environment since the operator does not stay in one place but instead moves around the use of hand-held mobile devices is recommended to provide immediate access to the information. Collecting the data can easily be accomplished by leveraging the same terminals, whether stationary or mobile. With the use of data entry wizards, the best MES software can ensure the accuracy and timeliness of data collection through rule-sets that guarantee consistency and eliminate errors, unlike paper documentation. The information that is gathered does not rely on any specific language with the use of standard digital fault codes etc.. For instance, reports can be generated in English or Spanish even if the data was originally entered in Spanish or Chinese.

What is The Future of the Paperless Factory?

There are two other advancements that are already exhibiting substantial benefits for the Smart Factory. The first is regarding the devices used to view electronic documentation and the methods in which it displayed. For example, assembly workers currently need to constantly look back and forth between their work and computers for instructions, which not only causes physical pain to their neck hands and eyes but is also a distraction.

By using a digital headset, glasses or other forms Augmented Reality (AR), productivity and concentration improves by providing a visual display eliminating the need for workers to look away from the task at hand. Through the use of AR headsets, complex step-by-step instructions are displayed for assembly, inspection or test information to the operator in real-time. Learning time can be reduced and the possibility of errors can be removed. Even if there are adjustments to the product or work-order the operator can receive live guidance and hands-on instructions that is visually overlaid onto their work. These advancements make a huge difference for high-mix cell-based Lean production by improving productivity and reducing operators stress. It is estimated that the rate of production could increase 50 percent.

The second promising initiative is in the improvement of digitalized MES software itself. Today, disparate data can be turned into value-added KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) by using advanced algorithms. Eventually these algorithms will further evolve into Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms that will further improve production in real-time. Eventually, the leveraging of AI will enable products to be introduced automatically as well as the controlling of amounts and timing needed for production, to satisfy the changing requirements from the customer. At first, AI will aid management by providing suggestions and choices in the decision-making process. Human intervention will not be needed as AI becomes more sophisticated and trusted.

The products digital twin and the digital shadow of production data must be exact and precise for these AI algorithms to be effective. The vast amount of different meanings and formats of communication content make gathering data from multiple machines from many vendors very difficult. As equipment vendors, manufacturers and solution providers begin to use the new IPC Industrial IoT standard, Connected Factory Exchange (CFX) this restriction will disappear.


The type of industry or size of the company is irrelevant when it comes to becoming a digital factory, if one is leveraging the right technologies. Although the primary advantage in these factories will be the ability to be very flexible and efficiently manage a large product mix, productivity should also increase substantially. Paperless manufacturing solutions, also known as the Smart Factory or Industry 4.0, are just the first step of the digital revolution. All factories need to adopt digital manufacturing software and paperless production since it is an important business-driven goal.

To learn more about becoming a Paperless Factory, read these related resources:

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