A new frontier in manufacturing systems

Smart factories represent a leap from traditional automation to fully connected and flexible systems. The system provides continuous access to data from connected operational and production systems to understand and adapt to new requirements. A truly smart factory integrates physical, operational, and human capital across the system to drive manufacturing, maintenance, inventory tracking, digitalization of operations through digital twins, and other types of activities across the manufacturing network. The result may be more efficient and agile systems, less production downtime, and a greater ability to anticipate and adapt to changes in the plant or across the network, further improving market competitiveness.

Definition of the Smart

Factory Automation has always been part of the factory to some extent, and even high levels of automation are not new. However, the term “automation” often denotes the execution of a single and independent task or process. In the past, machines “make decisions” on their own, often linear behaviors based on automation, such as opening valves or turning pumps on or off based on a predetermined set of rules.

Through the application of artificial intelligence (AI) and the deepening maturity of cyber-physical systems that combine physical machines with business processes, automation increasingly covers complex optimization decisions typically made by humans. Finally, and perhaps most critically, the term “smart factory” also refers to the convergence of factory floor decisions and insights with the supply chain and the rest of the enterprise through an interconnected IT/operational technology landscape. This will fundamentally change the production process and greatly enhance the relationship with suppliers and customers.

With this description, it is clear that a smart factory is more than just simple automation. A smart factory is a flexible system that optimizes the performance of the entire network on its own, adapts to and learns new environmental conditions in real or near real time, and automates the entire production process. Smart factories operate automatically on the factory floor while being interconnected with a global network with similar production systems or even an entire digital supply network. It is important to note that given the rapid development of technology, the definition and description of the smart factory in this article should not be regarded as its “ultimate form”, but rather represents a long-term evolution, an evolving process to build and maintain a flexible learning system, rather than a one-time modernization of the factory in the past.

The real power of a smart factory lies in its ability to evolve and grow according to the changing needs of the enterprise Whether these needs are shifts in customer needs, expansion into new markets, development of new products or services, more predictive and responsive methods of operation and maintenance, the introduction of new processes or technologies, or near-real-time changes in production processes. With greater computing and analytics capabilities and a broader ecosystem of smart, connected assets, smart factories enable businesses to adapt to change in ways that were previously relatively difficult or even impossible.

A smart factory is a flexible system that optimizes the performance of the entire network on its own, adapts to and learns new environmental conditions in real or near real time, and automates the entire production process.

What differentiates the characteristics of the smart factory

Many manufacturing companies are struggling to cope with the myriad of changes within the enterprise or ecosystem, and their operations are under tremendous pressure. Smart factory solutions can provide a variety of ways to successfully address some of these issues. The ability to adjust and learn from data in real time makes smart factories more responsive, proactive and predictive, and helps protect companies from operational downtime and other production challenges.

A leading electronics company adopted a fully automated production system, 3D scanners, IoT technology and integrated machine control as part of its efforts to implement a smart factory solution in its air conditioning production. The benefits of this automation include reduced customer delivery times, lower overall costs, a 25% increase in capacity and a 50% reduction in rejects.

Smart factories and some of their main features

The figure above depicts the smart factory and some of its main characteristics: connected, optimized, transparent, forward-looking and agile. These characteristics contribute to informed decision-making and help companies improve production processes. It is worth noting that there are no two identical smart factories in the world, and manufacturing companies can focus on developing different areas and characteristics of smart factories according to their specific needs.

Connectivity is perhaps the most important feature of a smart factory, but also its greatest value. Smart factories must ensure that basic processes and materials are interconnected to generate the data needed for real-time decision-making. In a truly smart factory, sensors are pervasive across assets, so systems can continuously scrape data sets from emerging and traditional sources, ensuring that data is continuously updated and reflects the current situation. By integrating data from operational systems, business systems, as well as suppliers and customers, you can gain full control over upstream and downstream processes in the supply chain, thereby improving the overall efficiency of your supply network.

Optimized smart factories enable highly reliable operation with minimal manual intervention. Smart factories have automated workflows that provide synchronized visibility into asset conditions, optimized tracking systems and schedules, and more rational energy consumption, improving yield, uptime and quality, and reducing costs and waste.

The data captured by the smart factory is transparent: Through real-time data visualization, data acquired from processes and finished or semi-finished products is processed and transformed into actionable insights that assist manual and automated decision-making processes. The transparent network will also further expand visibility into equipment and ensure more accurate decision-making through role-based perspectives, real-time warnings and notifications, and real-time tracking and monitoring.

In a forward-looking system, employees and systems anticipate upcoming problems or challenges and respond to them in advance, rather than waiting for them to occur. This feature includes identifying anomalies, stockpiling and replenishing inventory, identifying and proactively resolving quality issues, and monitoring safety and maintenance issues. Smart factories can predict future outcomes based on historical and real-time data to improve uptime, yield, and quality while preventing safety issues. In smart factories, manufacturing companies can further develop predictive capabilities based on automation and integration by creating processes such as digital twins to digitize operations.

The Smart Factory is agile, flexible enough to quickly adapt to schedule and product changes with minimal impact. Advanced smart factories can also automatically configure equipment and material flows based on the products being produced and schedule changes, so that you can control the impact of these changes in real time. In addition, flexibility enables smart factories to minimize adjustments as schedules and products change, increasing uptime and throughput and ensuring flexible schedules.

As a result of these characteristics, manufacturers can gain a more complete and clear view of their assets and systems, effectively address the challenges faced by traditional factories, and ultimately increase productivity and respond more flexibly to changing supplier and customer landscapes. For example, a apparel and footwear company has set up new smart factories in Europe and North America to address some of the challenges manufacturing companies often face, including global discrete production and changing customer needs.

Traditional factories and supply chains often face many challenges arising from changing trends. New smart factories are often located close to customers’ locations, so they can respond faster to emerging trends and quickly deliver footwear to consumers – less than a week, compared to two to three months for traditional factories. Both smart factories use a variety of digital and physical technologies, including digital twins, digital design, additive manufacturing equipment, and automated robotics. The company intends to learn from the experience of the first two smart factories and expand this model to more sites in other regions such as Asia.

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