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Industry 4.0

Developing digital capability: how any factory can be smart

Published on 16 September, 2021 in Industry 4.0

The buzz around Industry 4.0 continues to rise, as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) hits headlines with news of massive profits to be had for manufacturers. Tech sites lavish praise on the latest connected and synchronised devices running 24/7 in smart factories across the world. For the uninitiated though, even the term ‘smart factory’ can bring confusion. Does it have to be a brand-new, state-of-the-art, fully automated clean-room complex of pristine steel and glass? Or is there a way for more modest, even “ordinary” factories to benefit, to upscale or even accessorize and become smart?

Thankfully, the headline-grabbing ‘Industry 4.0’ isn’t reserved exclusively for the high-tech giants that span the globe, nor is the term ‘smart factory’ applied only to brand-new installations. In truth, any traditional factory can in principle take steps on the smart factory journey, by applying modularity to the existing installation.

Smart for smart’s sake?

It’s important to grasp that smart factories aren’t simply a trend, they are the most recent step in an inevitable shift in production. As such, the risk of being an early adopter doesn’t generally apply, so the question ‘when is the right time to go smart’ is likely best answered ‘as soon as you’re ready to take the first step.’ But it’s also important to know that not all tasks, processes, services and procedures can immediately benefit from the smart approach—digitalisation. It all depends on the current setup and what the factory owner needs going forward.

A modular approach

Some production lines are on a 24/7 cycle, with even minor adjustment and recalibration causing major losses through downtime. On the other side of the scale, many setups combine equipment from multiple manufacturers, some isolated and others connected, in a patchwork that only makes sense because it just about manages the work at hand. But with efficiency becoming more of a competitive edge, manufacturers need every advantage they can get, which is where digitalization comes into its own. Taking a helicopter view of production then isolating phases into modules, gives owners the chance to look at what their current architecture has to offer—and how it can be improved.

Defining realistic goals

First, what works, what doesn’t, what can be better, made faster, at higher quality? These are the first steps in defining where digitalization might help, understanding what needs to be solved before trying to solve it. Perhaps manual tasks in the production line can be automated, either fully or with the help of a collaborative robot. Maybe some of the production processes and equipment can be more closely monitored with remote device sensors—the jewels in the IIoT crown—producing valuable real-time data allowing feedback and action responses as well as better prescriptive maintenance cycles. In all cases, looking at existing processes with a fresh eye (or with the help of an external partner) allows owners to gain a realistic picture of what’s happening in the factory, and what might be done to improve it.

Operational technology assessment

How does a factory’s physical, operational technology, become information technology, moving from OT to IT? Any system or process that produces data, or can be used (with additional sensors for instance) to produce data, can in theory be integrated into an IT system, and perhaps already is through ERP. But then what? With the addition of a smart system of sensors to determine the precise performance of an existing setup, data can be gathered to help owners understand what’s working well, and what can be earmarked for improvement.

Smart moves

Sensors and automation technology are not the interfering intrusions that some still fear. Sensors in particular don’t interrupt the normal working of the production line, as they simply gather data to deliver clear information. Automation technology too, can be integrated into existing ‘legacy’ lines with the support of knowledgeable partners. Omron for instance has decades of experience in the field and in every production industry, from FMCG to food and beverage, packaging to confectionery, pharmaceuticals to homecare and beyond. Along with its European partners and system integrators, Omron can support any owner at every step of the journey. It all depends on what’s required, and when owners are ready to take the first step.

Accessible for all

The journey to the smart factory starts with a single step, and there’s no need to sprint. That’s the message coming back from those who have benefited from some of the inspection and monitoring solutions from OMRON that contribute to improved quality and cost in manufacturing processes. Or the automation systems, sensing and robotics, quality control and inspection solutions now available to our customers. Read what they have to say and decide for yourself.

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Do you have any questions or would you like personal advice? Feel free to contact one of our specialists.
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