Smart Factory Ready for Wider Adoption, Promising to Transform Manufacturing Business

The concept of the smart factory has been around for years, but until recently, it hasn’t been feasible for most companies to roll out.

That is starting to change, with advances to smart sensor, machine learning and other digital technologies, along with the increasing affordability of network bandwidth and storage.

Together, these technologies have the potential to move the plant well beyond traditional manufacturing methods, replacing them with cyber-physical systems that combine machines with networks and computers.

More than anything else, the smart factory is about data and connectivity–how to collect more information from plant equipment and operations, process it to learn valuable insights and make the data available to decision-makers and to other machines.

The smart factory technologies, such as IoT sensors, data visualization, robotics, augmented reality and artificial intelligence enable manufacturers to reduce equipment downtime, lower costs and, in general, optimize production.

Many of these digital technologies are already making a difference in Thailand, where the Siam City Cement Public Co., or SCCC, launched a digitally connected plant in late 2017. Early results from the implementation promise a 2% improvement in annual overall equipment efficiency (OEE) and a decrease in maintenance costs by 10%.

New Technologies Help Companies Visualize and Analyze Operational Data

In the smart factory, engineers and managers receive a continuous flow of data from machines and other equipment embedded with sensors, as part of an Internet of Things deployment. The sensors collect performance information from the machines, which can track the efficiency of the equipment and check for errors and anomalies.

The data, such as the status of a production line, is fed into the system, and such technologies as Fujitsu’s VisuaLine enables plant staffers to visualize the data in graphical form. Charts with wave-like lines display production line activity and identify possible abnormalities. The manufacturer can respond with fixes, changes to maintenance schedules or make further optimization to the production line.

By adding advanced machine-learning algorithms and predictive analytics to process aggregated data, plant engineers and managers can anticipate machine errors or failures. In a further step up in sophistication, AI-enabled systems can take self-corrective action to fix defects and optimize performance.

Predicting and correcting performance issues, with or without direct intervention by humans, requires large datasets, including accurate historical performance data.

Digitalization Optimizes a Range of Operations

Smart factory technologies can make a range of other improvements to factory operations. For example, manufacturers can use sensors and analytics to track inventories of components and finished products, with the system potentially able to automatically order new supplies.

The technologies also can optimize plant maintenance and operations in a more general way, improving product quality control and enhancing monitoring and enforcement of safety and security measures. For the latter, sensors could be placed at strategic points in sensitive or hazardous areas of the plant.

Manufacturers also can optimize their production and distribution supply chains to integrate with an increasingly globalized and digitalized network of supply chain partners.

Smart Factory Technologies Make Their Mark in Thailand

Siam City Cement, Thailand’s first smart connected factory, is an example of what an implementation of digital technologies can achieve.

SCCC rolled out smart plant technologies to reduce equipment downtime, lower maintenance costs and improve worker safety.

The plant introduced a range of smart factory technologies, including machine learning and predictive analytics to prevent equipment breakdowns, a digitalized inspection system to save time and offer data that managers could act on immediately, a contractor management system to ensure that contractors are productive and stay safe while on the job, and a remote operations center, to serve as a hub for the production facility.

The various parts of the smart plant are interconnected, each part feeding information into the system and each benefitting from data provided by the other parts.

IoT Helps to Bring About an Interconnected Plant

To accomplish this, the plant deployed sensors on machines and equipment throughout the plant to collect data, forming a broad IoT infrastructure.

And underpinning the digitally connected plant is a network of nearly 400 Wi-Fi access points. The network links people, devices and machines, facilitating IT/OT integration across the 5-square-kilometer plant.

Following the success of this smart project, SCCC is planning to deploy the smart connected factory processes and technologies at other facilities it operates, including those in other Asian counties.

Sticking with Tradition is Not an Option

The rollouts of smart factory technologies–also known as Industry 4.0 – are still in their early stages globally. But apart from the greater availability of advanced digital technologies and more affordable system components, there are other forces expected to accelerate implementations of smart factories.

Manufactures face growing pressure to make their supply chains, production lines and distribution channels more flexible in order to stay competitive. And digital technologies enable companies to become more responsive to meet these challenges. They also help a company’s bottom line by reducing operational costs, while improving productivity.

These realities make it a question of when, not if, manufacturers will fully embrace the smart factory concept. Staying with their traditional, siloed operations will cease to be an option.