How smart is your shop floor?
Written by
Anand Ethiraj

Ever visited a power plant in recent times? The number of personnel on the floor is hardly 5. A couple of people, operating a little away from the plant, watching a number of displays and light bulbs would be ‘quietly’ monitoring the entire production process. In fact, you would almost be greeted with an eerie silence, except for the hum of the turbines. Now, contrast that with a traditional manufacturing plant – the number of moving parts (literally and figuratively) make the shop floor a beehive of activity. What if the traditional shop floor can also be managed and monitored with quiet confidence and outstanding efficiency – by connecting machines, systems and people seamlessly.

Manufacturing starts on the shop floor. It’s where material moves, product is created, ultimately, where the work gets done. Every day, new devices and equipment are providing manufacturers with new opportunities for innovation and connection. In the entire world of shop floor automation, the trend (nay a wholesale revolution) is smart factory.

Deloitte Insights on The smart factory – Responsive, adaptive, connected manufacturing says, “The smart factory represents a leap forward from more traditional automation to a fully connected and flexible system – one that can use a constant stream of data from connected operations and production systems to learn and adapt to new demands. A true smart factory can integrate data from system-wide physical, operational, and human assets to drive manufacturing, maintenance, inventory tracking, digitization of operations through the digital twin, and other types of activities across the entire manufacturing network. The result can be a more efficient and agile system, less production downtime, and a greater ability to predict and adjust to changes in the facility or broader network, possibly leading to better positioning in the competitive marketplace.”

The technologies driving this revolution are of course Industrial IoT (Internet of Things), Cloud, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. According to a projection by Cisco, manufacturing will account for 27% of the projected $14.4 trillion IoT market between 2013 and 2022, with smart factories contributing $1.95 trillion of the total value at stake in the same timeframe.

Let us look at how different areas of shop floor, from operations to management, are being impacted by the new technologies, especially IoT and Cloud.

Plant Data and Data driven decision making

Use of computers in shop floor is not a new phenomenon. Though manufacturers have had access to data collected on the plant floor, till now, it has typically been locked away in proprietary manufacturing software silos. With IoT, it is now far easier and faster to collect and manage large amounts of manufacturing data not just in a single factory, but across multiple production sites through the cloud. And, when combined with analytics, companies will gain better insights, allowing them to optimize plant operations, reduce defects and perform preventative maintenance.

Monitoring and managing asset performance

Typically, in any shop floor, processes would be in place to divert production in the case machinery failure. However, there would still by associated downtime and revenue/profitability implications. Through the use of sensors, IoT and analytics it is possible to predict and prevent catastrophic failure on large-scale plant floor equipment, like boilers or compressors. Organizations can more effectively schedule maintenance and plan for outages, order inventory and schedule people, aiming at minimal or zero impact on production. Add to this machine learning capability; you can measure conditions like input flow and pressure settings, and determine whether a piece of equipment is running at optimal performance, including consumption of energy.

Alastair Orchard of Siemens notes that one of the factors that has stopped us in the past from delivering digital goodness to the customer is the relatively laborious task of equipping factories with all the necessary sensors and getting data organized and contextualized so it is available for simulation and analytics. According to him, “IoT allows us to sprinkle devices around the factory quickly and cost-effectively to find out what’s going on without going through the multiyear process of reorganizing the shop floor.” By integrating sensor equipment, machine learning and analytics capabilities, with IoT as the base, solutions are now able to accurately pinpoint the root cause of problems, helping customers avoid unnecessary plant floor shutdowns for bogus alerts.

Optimization and reliability

Having automated workflows, synchronization of assets, improved tracking and scheduling, and optimized energy consumption means that today, a smart shop floor / factory can increase yield, uptime, and quality, as well as reduce costs and waste. The nominal manual intervention increases reliability. Remote equipment management, including setting specific limits and parameters, allows for significant savings in energy and costs.

Business Intelligence

By integrating shop floor decisions and insights with the rest of the supply chain, sales & marketing and broader enterprise through the IoT ecosystem, organizations can not only fundamentally change production processes, but also enhance relationships with suppliers and customers.

If you are wondering, how come we have not touched Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as we speak about the revolution that is taking place in shop floor automation… well, that is a whole different area of discussion for another day.

If you are interested in taking advantage of IoT, Cloud, Machine Learning and Analytics for your plant, and would like to work with an expert in digital transformation – talk to Hakuna Matata.