As with every facet of modern business, manufacturing is not an exception when it comes to the digital revolution. Hard to imagine? SAP Malaysia managing director Terrence Yong certainly doesn’t think so.
“Imagine a factory floor with no operators in sight, machines automatically receiving orders, robotics shifting products from one machine to the next, and even machines performing self-diagnosis and predicting failures. Best of all, the final delivery of a unique, customized product based on one’s specifications,” Yong tells Malaysian Business.
“Industry 4.0 has been introducing what has been termed the “smart factory.” These facilities house advanced systems which monitor processes within and can make decisions. Much alike how it is with the Internet of Things, individual machines are able to communicate and co-ordinate with either themselves or a human operator. All this done in real-time and over a web connection,” he explained.
Yong elaborated that in smart factories where processes are fully digitised and connected, manufacturers can build and deliver orders more quickly. Customers are also able to personalise their purchases from a manufacturer with smart factory capabilities.
“We’ve seen the world of manufacturing grow by what is essentially a quantum leap. Robots, self-organizing production, augmented reality and 3D printing have come to the fore and opened doors never envisioned before. At the very centre of this is Data. Data is the lifeblood which drives outcomes,” he said.
“The change has been gradual, but has already seen industry leaders such as Audi, Harley Davidson, and Siemens leading the change in the business of manufacturing. How well connected a smart factory is can be separated into five categories,” said Yong.
As Yong explains, the first level is intra-company vertical integration where a company’s business systems connect to the shop floor systems. Many automobile makers have been producing cars with this level of connectedness for years. Instead of having separated systems for manufacturing planning, execution, tracking, and tracing, these processes are connected and integrated with corporate business systems to improve key metrics such as customer delivery, quality and costs.
The second level is machine-to-machine connectedness where intelligent machines self-diagnose and self-correct. In these smart factories, machines have built-in sensors or RFID chips that allow them to ‘talk’ to each other and adjust workflows.
For instance, if a downstream machine detects a problem and needs to slow down, this machine can inform the upstream machine and change the conveyor speed to slow down the line. Germany based STILL is a leading provider of intra-logistical solutions and their new CubeXX solution is another example of autonomous machines. In a world of increasingly flexible internal logistics, CubeXX is the solution for many future requirements.
eCommerce integration, or direct integration of online configurations, is the third level of connectedness. This type of smart factory caters to the consumer, providing personalised, highly configurable products that are managed from order entry to the shop floor.
The fourth level of connectedness is manufacturing collaboration, which supports collaboration with suppliers, contract manufacturing, design partners, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and customers.
Design partners can work on prototypes and test designs with real time integration to shop floor systems and adjust parameters to improve quality and reduce time-to-market. With the advent of 3D printing, this gives design partners the ability to do rapid prototyping. Enterprises can communicate with partners in real time to inform, analyse and act.
The final level of connectedness is when machines on the factory floor are connected to a machine cloud that enables remote monitoring, predictive maintenance and quality management. In these environments, owners, operators and manufacturers of machines and equipment can manage their assets at remote sites, while having visibility into performance and usage.
Predictive maintenance and service solutions allow equipment manufacturers and operators of machinery and assets to monitor machine health remotely, predict failures and proactively maintain assets.
It's a Harley – Built through digital operations
Even as this connectedness continues to astound, it should be noted that a Smart Factory is not limited to automation of a single production facility. A vast integration takes place across core functions towards the sale of the final product.
“This high level of integration and visibility across business processes will enable greater operational efficiency, responsive manufacturing and improved product design. Visionary companies like Harley-Davidson know this and have been spearheading efforts to the future of manufacturing,” said Yong.
In Harley-Davidson’s new manufacturing facility, every machine is a connected device and every variable is continuously measured and analysed. In fact, the company can even tell to the nearest tenth of a second how long it takes to install every component on a motorcycle.
Customization can easily be catered for, since an e-commerce integration lets customers personalise their bikes by choosing paint colours, frame designs and gas tank sizes. Dealers connect online to the Harley-Davidson manufacturing process and customers place their customized orders immediately at purchase.
Aside from efficiency, precision and high customization possibilities, Harley-Davidson has managed to reduce operational costs by an astounding $200 million (RM 888 million) at one plant alone.
The future in inevitable
Despite these industry leaders showing such phenomenal success, other manufacturers are still hesitant. Major factors influencing decisions include cost, existing machinery investments and even fears of security breaches.
“I feel that the manufacturers who are dragging their feet are only delaying the inevitable. Smart factories are coming and will be prevalent in the future. As revenues of Industry 4.0 companies soar, those who shuffled their feet stand the chance of losing out,” concluded Yong.