Intelligent communication is transforming factory operations

Intelligent devices are driving revolutionary change within the manufacturing industry. Karen McCandless finds out more

Karen McCandless
Karen McCandless
By Karen McCandless on 26 March 2014
Intelligent communication is transforming factory operations

This article was first published in the Spring 2014 issue of Prime

Imagine a factory where all machines and devices are seamlessly connected while sharing data between themselves and across the entire network. These devices can not only react in an intelligent way but also produce a vast amount of new data. And then imagine not just a network of factories across the globe, but extend this to include suppliers and distributors. This concept, which is often referred to as the Internet of Things, is clearly significant, with IDC estimating that the market will be worth US$8.9 trillion by 2020 (Internet of Things 2013 to 2020 Market Analysis). ARC Advisory Group defines the industrial Internet of Things as connecting intelligent physical entities such as sensors, devices, machines, assets and products to each other, to internet services and to applications.

“In preparation for the next decade when there will be billions of network-connected physical products in the world, the concept of a fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) is taking hold,” says Tom Comstock, vice president of DELMIA strategy and user experience, Dassault Systèmes. “New ways to harness the power of the internet are being driven across manufacturing operations. Soon internet-enabled products, machines and devices will communicate semi-autonomously with us and among themselves to optimise production and resources, resulting in a completely different production and end-user experience for these products.”

"These internet-enabled, intelligent devices and the explosion of data they produce could transform manufacturing operations and the factory as we know it today. “In the future, production components will directly communicate with the manufacturing execution system and send out instructions to downstream processes,” says Mirko Bäcker, marketing director EMEA, Tecnomatix, Siemens PLM Software. “The system will then be able to respond more quickly and make adjustments based on the data it has received. In this way, it will become more intelligent, networked and connected. We believe that cyber physical systems will serve as an innovation engine for the future of manufacturing.” 

In its 2014 report, Planning for the Industrial Internet of Things, ARC Advisory Group explains that this isn’t just another futuristic fad, as companies are already making investments in this field and developing solutions. It’s not something manufacturers will do just for the sake of innovation; it will deliver real business benefits. This includes less down time for machines as manufacturers will be able to remotely diagnose the problems. “When companies use smart, connected machines, they can manufacture with far greater detail and intelligence, and then use the information to be more productive,” says Comstock. “For example, it will be possible to easily schedule thousands of machines across multiple locations remotely, from a central hub. Under this type of scenario, machines could self-diagnose and order spare parts autonomously within a fully connected system. Better-organised production and maintenance scheduling could be introduced to further increase output while minimising down time. This would help improve efficiency and value across manufacturing operations.”

“Benefits include increased flexibility, better reliability of operations and improved productivity for employees,” adds Rob McGreevy, vice president – information, operations and asset management at Invensys. “It will also enable new levels of innovation and improve safety by reducing errors and lack of information and, in some cases, human-driven decision making.”

"These intelligent systems improve productivity and increase efficiency in completely new ways, such as through raw material. “Even raw material will have some kind of intelligence,” says Bäcker. “For example, if raw material is stuck at station one and there is down time at another station then it knows where to go next. Currently this decision is driven by a central production system but, with an intelligent system, raw material, parts, modules and the final product itself will be able to make intelligent decisions by themselves due to embedded sensors.”

According to Comstock, energy consumption is another interesting component. “With ready access to ‘live’ energy costs and the flexibility to easily move operations across sites, Industry 4.0 makes it possible to switch manufacturing to locations that take advantage of energy prices that are best suited to specific operations,” he says. “Adding supply and transactional costs to the equation gives an even bigger picture that helps people make better business decisions based on more accurate and timely information. In addition, by adopting connectivity within and between machines, people and processes – and the products they make – companies can more efficiently design and produce ‘mass customised’ products uniquely tailored to individual demand.”

The rise of internet-enabled devices has also changed the way manufacturers operate by making them rethink how they collect and analyse vast amounts of process and production data. “By making devices internet enabled, access to data and information has become more accessible than it was before, whether it was devices in a remote location or data that was not easily accessible,” explains McGreevy. “Now, companies can track every aspect of their business, from managing manufacturing processes, suppliers, inventory, down to field service staff. It is essentially completing the full supply chain.” 

McGreevy continues: “Manufacturing companies are looking at ways to use this information from internet-enabled devices to lower costs, optimise processes, and transform their applications,  services, or business models. They want to empower the operators with data and leverage predictive analysis to make faster decisions by looking at trends in near real time versus after the fact.  Previously, manufacturing data had to be retrieved manually by individuals – operators, technicians and the like – and brought together manually to establish real meaning and to provide context.  Now with connected devices simpler access to information by compiling data from different sources across the company and assembling it in context is much easier to do.”

"There are, however, still a myriad of challenges to face when formulating a strategy for adopting intelligent devices and planning for the Internet of Things. “Managing terabytes of data in real time is a challenge,” says Bäcker. “And without achieving real-time analysis there is no major step forward in regards to being more efficient. In addition, security is a concern as confidential data and IP needs to be stored safely, internally or in the cloud.”

“The main challenge will be to provide tools that allow manufacturers to correlate data from multiple devices and define rules that can be followed by them in an easy and very secure manner,” adds McGreevy. “In addition, manufacturers’ major challenge will be the infrastructure. They need to have a robust network that can cope with the harsh environmental conditions and reliability for transmission of data streams.”

"The good news is that the technology to enable this is already out there or will be available soon. “The vision is to connect the virtual environment to the real environment, but thanks to virtual models and production planning, design and engineering, the foundation is already there,” says Bäcker. “Siemens PLM Software provides an open architecture, which allows manufacturers to set up a new infrastructure. Our HD PLM Framework creates an environment that enables users to become more immersed in this content. One of the main challenges when working with intelligent systems is knowing which data is needed and where to find it. This framework provides users with the right data at the right time in the right volume when they need to make a decision within the production process. Manufacturers are then able to turn a simple idea into a real product, shortening overall development time and having to go through less trial and error to get a successful product.”

With the proliferation of intelligent devices and increased machine-to-machine communication, it may seem like people will play less of a role in the future of manufacturing. But they will still play an important role to ensure the right product is being made in the right way, at the right time.  “IDC Manufacturing Insights emphasised in a recent report written on the factory of the future that ‘despite growing plant automation, people — and the flexibility and decision-making capabilities they provide — will be at the centre of the factory of the future’,” says Comstock.

Bäcker adds: “Employees will require a different skillset than in the past. They should also have an open mind and be agile and flexible, with the ability to handle new manufacturing technologies.”

Comstock believes that, in the end, it all comes down to the user experience. “The more manufacturing visibility and intelligence that is readily and easily available to make better decisions, the more likely a manufacturer can make products that are well-received in the marketplace, resulting in greater customer satisfaction from a more positive user experience,” he says. “This is the rationale behind why Dassault Systèmes has been investing in building a 3DEXPERIENCE Platform so more people can view and understand the mass of data and optimise their actions accordingly. When big data is marshalled this way, it becomes usable intelligence and a valuable company asset – as more parts are added to the whole ‘system’, greater options are revealed and performance increases accordingly.”

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