Smart Factory: Vision or Reality?
Customisation has thus far always been the prerogative of a select few involving a time-intensive process with a complex, fragmented and costly supply chain. No wonder then that customisation was, and predominantly still is, exclusive to single lot or low volume manufacturing processes. But that’s all changing with the dawn of the Smart Factory.
Henry Ford’s well known phrase ‘you can have any choice of colour as long as it’s black’ was actually well ahead of its time. He’d clearly recognised that it was choice that customers really wanted, and with that, customisation. The reason back then that the only colour available was black, was because his - at the time revolutionary manufacturing processes - were specifically set up for mass production not customisation. In those days it was all about mass manufacturing by standardisation, reducing costs through economies of scale. That entailed limiting choice to a few pre-defined options.
Today things are different and customisation is moving towards the extremes of mass customisation, with potentially limitless choices defined and sometimes even designed by the customers themselves.
To cope with such diverse requirements, the manufacturing world is on the cusp of what is seen as the fourth industrial revolution. Germany & Japan are calling it ‘Industry 4.0’, the USA talk of ‘The Internet of things’ and a clear definition still remains elusive. But what is clear is that it’s about reorganising and controlling the complete value chain over the entire product lifecycle, where Cyber Physical Systems (CPS) will be required to seamlessly connect people, objects and currently still autonomic systems, to create dynamic, real-time optimised and self-organising, cross company value-chains. In tomorrow’s manufacturing plants all products, components, materials and processes will be intelligent and so will form the basis of the so-called Smart Factory.
As pioneers in shaping and implementing the Smart Factory environment, Aegis Software is already offering solutions geared towards this transition. At the recent 2nd Markt&Technik Summit Industrie 4.0 in Munich, Dr Friedrich Nolting of Aegis presented the company’s initiatives and experiences to an audience of German SME’s and large enterprises all eager to future proof their operations.
Dr Nolting’s presentation focused on the ‘smart’ workplace, how it is evolving, the challenges it faces and possible solutions based on real-time experiences of Aegis in the USA.
The topic is complex, seemingly confusing and often difficult to comprehend due to the revolutionary thinking behind it. So Dr Nolting’s challenge was to condense his key thoughts and advice into a mere half hour – a challenge which he mastered perfectly in an eloquent, thought provoking and interesting way. Not an easy feat when it’s the very last late afternoon session in a busy day jam-packed with numerous other presentations and heated debates.
His recipe “All relevant information needs to be at the right place at the right time” sounds easy enough, but of course it requires complicated shifts in process planning, configuration and communication, amongst others.
By simply juxtaposing some of today’s environments with tomorrow’s requirements, Dr Nolting offered some insight into the changing nature of the manufacturing world. For instance while today’s workflows are mostly product-centric, tomorrow they will need to be process-specific. There will need to be seamless communication interfaces between ‘man and machine’ as well as ‘machine and machine’ that holistically feed into an interactive and cooperative factory-wide system (and beyond) that is able to quickly and intelligently react and adjust processes according to actual requirements and situations.
Human resources will have identifiable personal profiles detailing their competences, clearance level, performance history, language preferences and other relevant information that will impact factory and process design, moving from ‘static’ workplace management to a much more flexible and organic environment. Mobile devices, smart phones, tablets and wearables will become the desktop of tomorrow. A Chinese worker, for example, will, according to their personal profile, automatically receive information and instructions in Chinese. An American worker will see punctuation and spelling according to US language conventions. And each device will be communicating bi-directionally and intelligently in order to give clear and relevant next-step instructions that ensure optimal process performance.
As a result, clear improvements in supply chain management, defect recognition and avoidance, simplification of processes, instant reporting and an altogether paper free environment will be achieved. And with it, customisation will be achievable on a mass manufacturing scale.
The challenges are manifold, and will no doubt require a sensitive socio-cultural approach during the transition and implementation phase. But Aegis are already proving that a Smart Factory is a more productive factory! And in order to stay competitive tomorrow, we must start planning our Smart Factories today.