What is the Smart Factory? The Impact of Factory 4.0 on Manufacturing
As the idea of interconnected and intelligent manufacturing is gaining ground, competing in the world of Industry 4.0 can be challenging if you’re not on the very cusp of innovation.
Seeing the growing economic impact of IIoT around the globe, many professionals and investors have been asking themselves if the industry is on the verge of a technological revolution. But judging from the numbers and predictions, there is tangible and concrete evidence that the idea of smart manufacturing has already burst into corporate consciousness. According to IDC, global spending on the Internet of Things in 2020 is projected to top $840 billion if it maintains the 12.6% year-over-year compound annual growth rate. There is no doubt that a huge part of this expenditure will be devoted to the introduction of IoT into all types of industry, especially including manufacturing.
But there is not only the forecasts and statistics to tell us that the idea of Industrial Internet of Things is gaining traction across virtually all business sectors. Having already proven to be the crunch point in manufacturing, IIoT brings the reliability of the machine to machine communication, the security of preventive maintenance and the insight of big data analytics. In other words, the IIoT revolution has already begun.
What is the Smart Factory?
Before we focus on the intricacies of the smart factory, by way of introduction, a few words must be said about its underlying concept, the Industrial Internet of Things. Though the idea has been around for quite a time now, it isn’t yet obvious to all what exactly it encompasses and what all its aspects are. Just as the regular Internet of Things aims to empower our everyday life by interconnecting devices and making them interact and cooperate to bring us easier and quicker solutions for our daily struggles (remember smart coffee makers?), the IIoT is the same concept, but applied to whole enterprises, like manufacturing, services or retail businesses. So, what we need to have to be talking about a real IIoT deployment, is not only machine-to-machine communication, but also bridging the gap between physical and digital assets within a factory and reducing man-to-machine cooperation by introducing smart automation and machine learning.
A Smart Factory is a concept deriving from IIoT that envisages a production environment as a fully automatized and intelligent network of systems that enables facilities, machines and logistics chains within the manufacturing plant to be managed without human intervention. Moreover, a smart factory is a place where all these things happen thanks to the exchange of data not only between production tools and machines, but also between all elements in the production technology chain. This in turn fuels machine learning so that operations can be carried out more efficiently and bring more savings than it would be ever possible if the production processes remained solely under human supervision.
What is the impact of the smart factory on enterprises?
There would be no hype nor double-digit growth estimates concerning the concept of Factory 4.0 if it weren’t for the benefits that the introduction of smart manufacturing processes can bring to any business. Creating a dynamic production environment thanks to the application of both automation and intelligence improves reliability, effectiveness and safety while reducing operation and downtime costs. Let’s have a closer look at how this is realized within the concept of a smart factory.
Whether it’s entirely manual or fully automated, every manufacturing process must be monitored in order to be controlled, effective and safe. Therefore, the efforts of the IoT projects in this industry sector have to concentrate on tracking the operations at all levels and gathering relevant data from machines or assets that would be otherwise only isolated pieces of gear with no ability to coordinate and control their own workflow.
But what the communication and interaction between the production tools brings to the process is more than just enhanced supervision and monitoring capabilities. Based on the smart factory production strategies, improvements can be introduced in real time, quickly leading to production cycle optimization. Moreover, the more automated and controllable a process is, the less it is prone to human errors, which not only increases productivity through reducing downtime or maintenance costs, but also improves final product quality.
Smart factory solutions can also be helpful in factory floor logistics. Thanks to wireless sensor networks connecting the machines, tooling, materials or any production surfaces, like conveyor belts, all the assets involved in the manufacturing processes can be traced in real time, granting their full visibility to the operators throughout the whole production chain. On this basis, asset usage and intra-factory logistics can be optimized to maximum capacity. Decision-making can also be improved thanks to the gathered knowledge about each of the assets’ potential.
Gathering and analyzing data is a crucial notion in the concept of the Factory 4.0, as it enables to unleash the potential hidden in the equipment, resources and people.
In the smart factory, data can reach the right place in the production chain at the right time without the need of mediation on the part of a human supervisor. This enables a more immediate model of interaction, wherein machines and tools freely share information between them to reach higher degrees of efficiency.
But to achieve this, data from different production contexts needs not only to be collected, but also integrated and analyzed to bring meaningful insights. A factory 4.0 powerful data analytics environment is capable of doing this, which eventually may lead to developing a full-fledged preventive maintenance mechanism that will keep the processes up and running despite the defects related to tear and wear resulting from regular equipment exploitation and operation. Also, data processing can help in creating strategies for lowering the consumption of materials and energy as well as optimizing asset utilization.
Despite the heaps of technology that a Factory 4.0 may be packed with, it still can remain to be human-oriented. Even more than that: it can be more employee-friendly exactly because it is more intelligent and self-driven. Why is that? Because the more controlled and predictable the production environment is, the less threats it poses to the workers who monitor, operate and maintain its components. Provided with the direct and immediate insight from the data analytics systems, employees are able to detect the weakest links in the production chain and react proactively in case of detected irregularities.
Thanks to the technology that the smart factory brings, also the workers themselves can be tracked by the system and warned against any possible dangers if they happen to enter some predefined risk zones. One of the hottest solutions of this kind on the market is offered within the AVSystem Coiote IoT Data Orchestration platform — you can learn more about smartening up your factory with employee safety.
Customization in the area of production is undoubtedly one of the ways in which the industry is heading nowadays. Growing consumer demands are spurring the trend in the manufacturing sector towards more flexibility in production.
The steps to introduce production flexibility, such as the use of new materials or new manufacturing techniques, should be made easier with the expertise and knowledge taken from the big data gathered in the process of manufacturing workflow monitoring. Thanks to this, smart production plants can reach new levels of adaptability and cater to the changing needs of the customer market.
Also, thanks to minimizing the downtime that it takes for the equipment to be retooled and reconfigured, manufacturers are able to maintain their production process efficiency while becoming more flexible and ready for new market challenges.
Implementing Factory 4.0 with AVSystem
It is quite true that the actual implementation of the smart factory largely depends on the specificity and the individual requirements of a production environment in question. But there are software solutions out there, such as AVSystem’s Coiote IoT Data Orchestration platform, that are able to handle many specific types of hardware and are adaptable to a large number of different deployment scenarios.
Being the physical basis for every smart factory, sensors are needed throughout the manufacturing plant to monitor the status of assets, gather and analyze data and use the resulting insights to optimize production. But for the sensors to do all these kinds of operations, there must be a platform to provision and manage them, enabling them to gather data and to present it in an insightful and user-friendly way.
With the concept of the smart factory in mind, the AVSystem’s Coiote IoT Data Orchestration has introduced a novel solution for manufacturing data collection and monitoring to respond to the growing market demand.
Sensors transmit the gathered data via Bluetooth Low Energy gateways that can be installed in many different places inside the facilities. The data then is passed on to the platform which enables system operators to track the location and status of connected assets in real-time by means of data visualizations. These in turn are helpful in quick decision-making processes which are indispensable when dealing with factory floor emergencies or strategic asset management.
Providing an additional level of security in a smart factory are the so-called panic buttons, that may be carried by every factory worker. They can be used as a fall back option while the employee faces a risky situation to immediately notify their supervisors about any potential danger.
Smart Factory: the bottom line
The smart factory solution is dedicated to manufacturers who would like to leverage the potential of their resources, staff skills and time to achieve competitive advantages. It is true that taking up the idea of factory 4.0 and bringing it to life requires investment, effort and strategy. But in the long run, given all the advantages that a fully automated and intelligent plant may have, the impact of a well implemented smart factory solution should grant investment paybacks and put its early adopters at the forefront of the Factory 4.0 revolution.