The Digital Factory

The role of IoT in an automated plant
Ron Crowl
June 14, 2018
COLUMN : In the Trenches | Operations

Imagine being asked to play in a football game where you don’t know any of the other individuals on the team nor their respective positions. It isn’t the concussive helmet crashes from previous games that have obscured your sense of familiarity; you really have no knowledge of, or relationship to, any of these people. Nothing in common. Not age, shared experiences, nor demographics.

Now imagine an actual football game where the sense of your role and the collective roles of your teammates are as familiar to you as your varsity jacket—the muscle memory kicks in, plays unfold seamlessly and you do your job in concert with the other players whose shared goal is to score more times than the other team. 

The digital factory is something like that. The Internet of Things and Industry 4.0 have given birth to the newly minted concept of the Digital Factory—an arrangement of technology that works in concert like a well-coached and highly conditioned football team with a shared goal of creating a largely automated and integrated system that decreases work in process and increases throughput.

Before technology had a role on the manufacturing floor, factories consisted of work cells where a piece of machinery was placed on the shop floor without regard to its relationship with the other machinery in the facility. These machines were run by people, who, by their very nature as individuals, were more unreliable when it came to consistency, quality checks and standardization of procedures. To be fair, what makes people interesting is their differing interpretations and perspectives. While automation eliminates that, in this case it's a good thing.

A brief background

The advent of programmable logic controllers introduced automation to the work cell machinery. This minimized the reliance of people, and improved quality and consistency within the work cells. However, another monster was created—the infamous islands of automation. These isolated setups did their individual tasks well but had no interaction with the other work cells, which created additional inefficiencies.

Then enterprise resource planning systems came along to integrate the islands of automation. This integration brought manufacturers a new and much improved level of efficiencies throughout the business. This is where not all, but many manufacturers are today. They sit at this station wondering what is the next step in the evolution of the shop floor that will further reduce the reliance on manual labor and increase profitability throughout the organization.

By using the concepts of IoT and Industry 4.0, forward-thinking manufacturers will be able to further integrate their islands of automation much like a winning football coach directs his players to do what they’ve been trained and conditioned to do.

The next iteration: the digital factory

The digital factory builds on the progress that ERP solutions have brought to the industry. By taking the next step and using the concepts of automation, integration, IoT and Industry 4.0, much more data can be captured, analyzed and presented in a usable manner, thus allowing users to make proactive business decisions. 

While this concept is fairly clear and understandable for most, the actual implementation of such a radical concept is a bit more complicated. The digital factory is a challenging project. Consultants who are currently rebranding themselves as Industry 4.0 and Digital Factory Experts often fail to understand this. Companies that lack the internal resources and knowledge base to grasp the principles of the digital factory or to implement such a big change need to first understand these complexities. They also must realize the least of those is the challenge of tying together dissimilar systems to obtain the relevant data and how to present and use the data once it is obtained.

A good first step in designing a digital factory is to utilize a communication standard that allow sensors, work cells and machinery to “talk” to a centralized software system without custom software development for each piece of equipment or sensor on the shop floor. One such system is fenestration manufacturing language, or FENml—a baseline communication standard for glass fabricators, window and door manufacturers, machinery manufacturers, software providers and suppliers of consumables for the fenestration industry. Though this concept is targeted to our specific industry, the precepts are rooted in the same IoT and Industry 4.0 concepts that would apply to any industry. 

By outfitting existing machinery with new sensors and gathering data such as alarms, temperatures, power consumption, vibration, operating modes and cycle times, the data points can be analyzed to provide information that influences future business decisions. 

Typically, the challenge arises when integrating machines of a different make and model. Since FENml is a publicly accessible open standard, equipment manufacturers, fabricators and inventory suppliers all have access; community driven and industry driven. 

The game is ever changing, the goalposts have moved and industries that embrace the digital factory model are poised to win championships. By working together as a manufacturing community, the future looks promising if not downright unstoppable. 

Tech Talk

A quick vocab recap of modern industry terms

Automation: The execution of a process or procedure without human involvement. Much of the machinery used in the industry today includes some level of automation. Automation is critical as it creates efficiency, improves quality and reduces the labor required to produce products.

The Internet of Things (IoT): IoT has come to life with the miniaturization of sensor technology. Sensors can now be placed nearly anywhere and at an affordable price. Data can now be collected from a wide range of devices by connecting these devices to the internet.

Industry 4.0: Frequently called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this concept gives machinery on the shop floor the capability of communicating among themselves to make real time decisions that do not involve human intervention.

The digital factory: The digital factory builds on the progress that ERP solutions have brought to the industry, taking the next step and using the concepts of automation, integration, IoT and Industry 4.0. The more data that can be captured, analyzed and presented in a usable manner from these systems can allow users to make proactive business decisions. 

Fenestration manufacturing language (FENml): A baseline communication standard for glass fabricators, window and door manufacturers, machinery manufacturers, software providers and suppliers of consumables for the fenestration industry.

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.