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Aegis Blog

The Future of the Paperless Factory

The Future of the Paperless Factory

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’ 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.

Managing the content written on paper can be challenging with errors in consistency, meaning, and interpretation. Also, the language is static.  When someone recommends automating the process and getting rid of paper, everyone immediately fixates on the price tag of the technology. Instead, they should be focusing on the cost of the outdated process, which makes one question what the actual cost of the paper-based process in manufacturing is. In manufacturing, there are two reasons for the use of paper. First, it brings information into production and is commonly used to convey work instructions for either manual or automated processes and provides directions for things like logistics and maintenance. The second purpose for paper in manufacturing is to take information out of manufacturing by documenting details about incidents that have occurred, such as production event records or maintenance history. Automating and replacing paper with digital technology requires two separate though related approaches. The product design description is the start of the data-flow process into the manufacturing plant. Electronically sending and receiving information via, email, such as scanned documents or schematics is just a small step in truly becoming paperless since an electronic document is either printed or read on-screen just like a paper version. Unfortunately, this does not truly digitalize the content of the data; it just digitalizes the way the information is transmitted.

Changing paper-based product model data into multiple types of process model data in production involves a massive amount of manual engineering work. For SMT (Surface Mount Technology) machines and other automated processes, the outcome is frequently a machine program. However, more commonly, the result is a dataset outlining each of the tasks assigned to every machine. The data is read directly by the automated machine vendor software to generate optimized programs. Automated processes, particularly through the changeover, setup, and material verification, need operator assistance. It is very common to use paper for the purpose of giving directions for tasks. A much more in-depth set of instructions is needed for non-automated processes. There are also considerable amounts of paper documentation for inspection and repair stations.

Providing paper-based work-instructions has two essential things to consider; the first is whether the documents are current, and the second is how to be aware of any changes in the information. Manufacturing operations often use paper-based for work-orders, which can be challenging identifying any differences in the document. Others only distribute paper-based work orders when engineering makes modifications. In this situation, if new documentation is unavailable, it is difficult to know whether the updated documentation is not needed, late or even lost. This situation requires careful management. For material logistics, paper can easily get misplaced or damaged when controlling the movement of materials from point to point. The paper ‘lot follower’ details the expected steps needed to process the product and using paper repair tickets to manage exceptions for product tracking. While recording data from the factory operations may appear less complicated, it is often poorly managed. When considering all of the production processes, even though many are automated, the majority are still manual and rely on operators to record and write the data onto paper. Other than a basic "stick-on" repair ticket, which has a high probability of being lost during repairs, it is not ideal to log incidents on each piece of production equipment. Assembly operations distractions increase as the need for data collection increases, which in turn drastically lowers their productivity. The collected data is often useless and late as well as subjective, since it can be different from operator to operator depending on their mood at that point in time.

What Does Paperless ‘State of The Art’ 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.

In addition to delivering the correct data on time, the act of converting to true digital documentation allows for automated documentation management. Many additional benefits are provided when both the ‘digital twin’ of product information and the ‘digital shadow’ of production history are used together on a manufacturing MES system. There are many different uses for all of this data. Dashboards and reports can incorporate the calculation of key metrics like performance and quality that facilitate operational improvements. Additionally, being able to track products individually is easily supported. This tracking capability guarantees that all production phases are completed in the proper order and that any additional inspections, repair steps and possible defects have been identified. This information can then be leveraged to support important decision-making for the entire factory. Decisions such as assisting with forecasting, assigning work-orders and scheduling using the actual live data, status, and availability of materials and resources can be augmented. Employing one platform allows everyone in the factory to see cohesive, identical data that is delivered correctly and on-time, as well as contextualized to the end user’s job function. The best-practice scenario is when a single fully automated MES system has live data links providing the assembly workstations with electronic documentation and feedback. Additionally, the best-in-class MES system supporting critical transactional operations such as materials logistics and resources to provide optimal outcomes. Any need for paper used to perform ordinary operational activities is eliminated with a digitalized MES system.

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. Eliminating paper in manufacturing also known as the Smart Factory or Industry 4.0 is just the first step of the digital revolution. All factories need to adopt digital manufacturing since it is an important business-driven goal.

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

  1. Aegis Whitepaper: The Paperless Factory
  2. Aberdeen Whitepaper: Prioritizing Paperless Control

Michael Ford

Sr. Director Emerging Industry Strategy

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