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Visibility In Manufacturing: The Path To Industry 4.0

Through the enhanced visibility of Industry 4.0, manufacturers can gain a number of benefits that contribute to dramatic resource and cost savings, plus significantly improved productivity.

Everyone is talking about how Industry 4.0, or the use of cyber-physical systems connected in real time across the entire value chain, is the next Industrial Revolution. Integrating data from many kinds of sensors can help manufacturers gain the necessary visibility to predict issues and self-optimize as problems occur. To some manufacturers, the coming age of cyber-physical systems is the inevitable next step. For most, however, these concepts feel quite distant from today’s reality where many plants have yet to fully adopt the automation technologies of Industry 3.0.

While Industry 4.0 may only be an aspiration today, every company can benefit from greater visibility throughout the production process. In fact, visibility is one of the key foundations of both Industry 3.0 and 4.0. The adage “you can’t improve what you can’t measure” is certainly true, but it omits one important fact: you can’t measure what you can’t see. In the context of manufacturing operations, “seeing” might be better described as “sensing” since no individual can expect to literally see all aspects of a complex, scattered process.

According to a 2014 Smart Manufacturing Technologies survey, 40 percent of manufacturers have no visibility into the real-time status of their company’s manufacturing process. The survey also revealed that most manufacturers are working within the constraints of Industry 2.0 and 3.0 concepts which present a plethora of blind spots that make it difficult for plant managers, designers, and engineers to identify the right fixes that will have a positive impact throughout the manufacturing process.

So, how can manufacturing facilities transition towards Industry 4.0? First, let’s take a look at the technologies of Industry 3.0 in four areas and how each one adds layers of value along the way.

Asset Visibility
The cost of not having asset visibility is quite clear. If people are spending time searching for products or tools, that adds up to a lot of wasted time. It can also slow down cycle-time if products are sitting being searched for and not being processed, leading to decreased throughput and higher inventory levels. The solution is to use sensors and tracking technology to know where everything is at any given time. This requires infrastructure and networking, so it must be done in partnership with the IT department to find, deploy and support these kinds of technologies.

Process Visibility
Process visibility involves the task of answering the question: where is my product in the process? This will require another level of sensing technologies. It can be measured in many ways such as feedback from robotic elements or monitoring the movement of products physically through the plant. Motion is an important indicator of the status of the process, but the location information needs to be much more granular and precise. This can be achieved with sensors that measure flow and identify bottlenecks, providing objective data to support process improvement decisions.

Error Proofing
Error proofing can help guide line workers confronted with increasingly variable tasks and prevent them from making mistakes. With exact knowledge of the location of tools and products there is full control over which task is performed on which vehicle. Further integration with device controllers allows tools to be disabled rather than let them execute the wrong task.

Reactive Controls
Reactive controls help take error proofing one step further by understanding the current situation and responding accordingly. On an assembly line, workers usually have a short task time and if the work isn’t completed within a specific timeframe, an error propagates or the line stops, both of which are very costly. Reactive controls provide more flexibility to give line workers a few extra seconds if needed. This can also be done locally on a single process but provides exponentially greater benefit as it is implemented along the entire assembly line.

Virtualized Workstations
Fixed workstations (takts) have traditionally been used in order to achieve a level of process control and quality assurance. However, with modern plants producing increasingly high levels of product variation, the concept of the fixed workstation is strained to the point of breaking. Virtualized workstations create software-defined process controls and quality gates and these can be varied in real time. Such workstations can easily accommodate variable process times for different product types, overlapping or overlaying processes for rare options, and many more examples of flexibility.

All of these are important steps along the path to Industry 4.0, but how can manufacturers get from here to there? First, start small and start local — trying to create large scale cyber-physical systems as a single effort presents too many challenges to be successful. Pick a problem or pain point and tackle it to prove that these solutions work and provide value. As benefits surface, roll this out to other processes keeping the ultimate goal of end-to-end visibility in mind. Be sure to invest in the right infrastructure at the outset and create islands of cyber-physical systems throughout the operation. Only then, look at how the entire organization can benefit by integrating these islands together into a true Industry 4.0 system.

No matter where a plant is along this path to Industry 4.0, the key to identifying problems and improving efficiency is greater visibility. Gaining visibility throughout all aspects of the manufacturing process enables manufacturers to:

  • Reduce cycle time (increase throughput, shorter lines, less people)
  • Reduce WIP inventory
  • Minimize non value-added work
  • Gain detailed insight by correlating operational data with real-time process interactions
  • Enable more flexible manufacturing practices by uncoupling processes from fixed work zones 

Through this enhanced visibility, manufacturers can gain a number of benefits that contribute to dramatic resource and cost savings and significantly improved productivity.

Adrian Jennings is vice president of manufacturing industry strategy at Ubisense.