The Digital Advantage

Creating a plan for Industry 4.0
Ron Crowl
June 14, 2019
COLUMN : In the Trenches | Operations

Common Language

How to eliminate islands

The simple answer to eliminating islands of information is to write code to obtain all the machinery data and write additional code to integrate it with an in-house software solution. However, most window and door fabricators do not have the resources to take on a large custom Industry 4.0 software initiative. The cost to do this independently would be significant and the ongoing maintenance of these software interfaces would limit the vision of The Digital Factory to only the largest companies in the industry. 

Our vision is to eliminate islands of information by creating a common, open communication standard that all machinery and software providers utilize to share data. This initiative is called FENml and is designed to allow all data to be accumulated and presented in a single centralized location so that integration to current software platforms is much more manageable. 

The Digital Factory is not limited to the inside of the factory walls. It also includes customers and vendors. The more information that can be shared up and down the supply chain, the more opportunities there are for improvements. 

Recent studies report that nearly 75 percent of all Internet of Things and Industry 4.0 projects have been failures. If this is the case, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is not off to a good start. How is it possible that the majority of these projects have not produced any value? My guess is it’s the lack of a solid plan. 

Many companies rush to collect massive amounts of data and place it in the cloud with the mindset of, “once we get the data, we’ll figure out what to do with it.” This sounds like a recipe for failure. Instead, let’s first consider what the vision of a good Fourth Industrial Revolution manufacturing plant would look like for a window and door fabricator. I like to refer to this as The Digital Factory. 

Find your digital backbone

Take an honest look at where we are as an industry. For decades, ERP software systems have enabled mass customized products to be easily quoted and processed as orders. Many of these systems provide direct digital communication, passing work instructions to the machinery and providing the ability to go paperless on the shop floor. Most industries would love to have just this.

Businesses that have implemented an ERP solution that provides this level of connectivity are already well on their way. Those that haven’t now have a clear first step of the plan—it’s time to implement a software solution that will provide the digital backbone for the factory and the future.

Gather data to determine what’s important on your factory floor

With a digital backbone in place, the next step is to determine what’s important for the individual business. From our perspective, getting useful data out of the machinery is a next logical step in closing the loop between the front office and factory floor. 

Sending digital work instructions to the machinery and work cells is a key component in integrating islands of automation. These islands evolved organically within factories with the advancement of automated equipment and they add substantial benefit to the efficiency of the operation. Again, as an industry, we’ve done this for decades, so the question is, what’s next?

There’s a common misconception that an Industry 4.0 project requires the placement of new sensors all over the factory floor. In most cases, this is unnecessary. The current machinery on the shop floor contains a treasure trove of data, much of which is not available to be viewed or analyzed.

As an industry, what we haven’t done well is gather performance data from the machinery and work cells in a centralized manner. Obtaining real-time data from machinery is an exciting possibility. Updating work cell capacity based on real cycle times can help provide accurate delivery dates to customers. Moreover, automatically scheduling machine maintenance and ordering consumable parts—based on gathered data—will keep machinery running at peak performance and eliminate surprises. 

Viewing a machine’s overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) offers a peek into the flow of product in a facility, providing early end-of-life indication for machinery or simply directing the maintenance team to the problem. The data provides the ability for the machine to self-diagnose an alarm condition and deliver corrective action information via text or video. 

The opportunities are abundant and deciding what is important to you will have a huge impact on your organization.

Start small

The third step is to start small. A full-scale, solve-all-the-world’s-problems project is doomed to fail. Stay focused on what’s important to you. Experience will allow the scope of The Digital Factory to expand in a way that’s most beneficial. 

Resist creating new islands of information—especially after working so hard to minimize those islands of automation. Some machine manufacturers are beginning to develop dashboards that present previously unavailable machine performance data to the user. However, what is starting to form are disconnected islands of information. While the creation of machine-specific dashboards is certainly a step forward, it may be a step in the wrong direction. (See “Common Language,” at left.)

The manual processes of gathering the raw data and combining it into useful information takes time and resources. And, in an already tight labor market, this is one activity that often falls to the bottom of the to-do list. Unfortunately, in such situations, the ability to gain valuable information is lost. 

Implement the plan

These are the keys to building a digital factory: get an ERP solution in place for a basic level of connectivity, identify what’s most important for the business, start small, resist islands of information and embrace an open industry standard.  

Ron Crowl is the president and CEO of FeneTech Inc., providing ERP manufacturing solutions to the fenestration industry since 1996. The software provider is also the founding member of FENml.