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Editor's Pick


Smart from the start?

06 October 2023

Smart factories don’t have to start smart: Jocelyn Golding explores how the the benefits of a purpose-built smart factory can be applied to existing facilities

WHEN ASKED to imagine a smart factory, many will immediately think of a purpose-built greenfield site, wall-to-wall with robotics and the latest technology that operates autonomously and resembles something from a science fiction film. While such factories do exist, many of their most important capabilities are not out of reach to facilities that have been operating for 20 or more years. In fact, the definition of a smart factory is a digitised facility that uses connected devices, machinery, and production systems to continuously collect and share data, which is an obtainable goal for all types of manufacturing facilities. 

Achieving smart factory status then, doesn’t mean starting from scratch. Digital technologies can be applied step-by-step to continuously drive value over the lifecycle of a facility while opening the flow of data which will ready a business for capabilities such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. Current smart factories shouldn’t be seen as something reserved for the largest global enterprises, they should be viewed as a case study for what’s possible. They should be assessed against the needs of your own specific business to set a manageable plan that will deliver a return on investment at each stage.

Shining example

The Schneider Electric Leeds facility is a smart factory that uses the very latest digital manufacturing capabilities, uniting power and processes while optimising performance, collecting information from sensors, assets and even operators on the production line to create a plant-wide overview. Following its digital transformation journey to date, the Leeds facility has reached autonomous capabilities, saving valuable time, decreasing wastage and increasing quality all while self-managing and automatically adapting. These capabilities weren’t in-built from the start, the Leeds facility has actually been continuously producing low and medium-voltage products since 1998, proving that smart factory status is not something that can only be built from the ground up.

Data integration, for example, is a fundamental part of any smart factory. The ability to access and contextualise the ever-growing amount of information produced by modern assets in real-time is the building block of any smart factory but also something very achievable for any facility operating today. Even legacy assets that have been in operation for a long time can add affordable IoT sensors to retroactively start harvesting data. With the right partner and right system architecture, this small change unlocks immediate and long-term benefits without requiring the purchase of new, high-cost assets.

This one step in the journey to becoming a smart factory empowers operators with the information they need to make informed decisions while reducing their admin-based workload, creating further opportunities for value-adding activities, and easing the impact of skilled and unskilled labour shortages. It also enables factories to work at their optimal efficiency with what they already have. While we all understand that new shiny assets will operate more efficiently than legacy hardware, this level of spend isn’t feasible for most businesses. What is feasible, for every business, is using the data that is already within facility to improve operations.

Step-by-step smart

Having made the decision to strive towards a smart factory, and deployed the system architecture platform that enables data integration from the plant floor to the top floor, businesses can now work at their own pace of transformation.

Robotics, for example, is a very broad technology field with applications in every sector. SMEs and specialised manufacturers that work on small product runs may see the hulking machines that line the floor of a major automotive manufacturer and not immediately see a place within their business for robots, but the field of robotics is not all about large-scale mechanics. Unlocking the potential of industrial robotics can mean starting small. As the cost of each industrial robot declines, the technology becomes more viable for businesses of any size. Cobots also provide an opportunity to increase worker productivity in the wake of labour shortages and the growing skills gap. The lack of new talent entering industry can impact productivity but businesses that introduce robots and cobots can remove repetitive tasks, minimise workplace injuries, and most importantly better utilise existing members of the workforce with more fulfilling work that takes advantage of their human, problem solving qualities.

Across the board, manufacturers are being tasked with operating in closer harmony with the environment and a keen awareness of their impact on the planet. Again, the perception may be that investing heavily in power-hungry machines and next-generation industrial software would lead to a facility that uses more energy than ever before, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Robot/machine hybrid solutions offer a more sustainable approach to production, regardless of what the final product is. In some business cases, adding more workers doesn’t equate to a higher output due to footprint restrictions limiting their ability to expand. Robotics address this challenge by enabling faster production in a limited space. Robot and cobot benefits deliver a significant return on investment with reduced production costs and enhanced product quality.

All these elements highlight how robotics can improve the circular economy. Working with greater precision and accuracy, reducing the number of raw materials needed with the ability to swiftly detect and eliminate defective parts or goods from the production line. This equates to a manufacturing facility that utilises every bit of energy effectively to reduce the impact to the environment without compromising on productivity, something that can be applied to a manufacturer of any size.

Smart factories are a beacon of realised potential of industry 4.0, but the capabilities found within these facilities are not just for large companies that can build a facility from the ground up. Data integration and robotics are just two vital elements of a smart factory that can be successfully deployed in businesses of any size or budget. While digital transformation is an ongoing process; companies do not need to decide the full extent of their smart factory journey in one go. Steps can be taken now that unlock immediate benefits in economic growth, environmental awareness, and worker productivity. The good news is that once the data is unlocked, the building blocks are in place for the future, ready to reach the highest-level of digital transformation capabilities, that will deliver value throughout the lifecycle of an entire facility.

Jocelyn Golding is OEM, industrial SI & IAD channel manager at Schneider Electric


Key Points

  • A smart factory uses connected devices, machinery, and production systems to continuously collect and share data
  • Digital technologies can be applied step-by-step to continuously drive value over the lifecycle of a facility
  • Affordable IoT sensors can be added to legacy assets to retroactively start harvesting data