Smart Machines & Factories
The road to digitalisation
Published:  17 August, 2017

The vision of Industry 4.0 presents a utopia where all parts of an operation are interlinked and coexist and where efficiencies, cost reductions and productivity increases can be achieved through integrated automation. That sounds good but what does that really mean and how do we start along the road to implementing the goals of Industry 4.0 and the smart factory? Smart Machines & Factories reports.

These are questions that Mitsubishi Electric has sought to answer, building on over 35 years’ experience of automating factories in the UK and by embracing the smart factory and Industry 4.0 concepts. It has distilled that guidance into a white paper entitled “Industry 4.0 – The road to digitalisation in future manufacturing.”

Mitsubishi Electric marketing & operations group manager Chris Evans commented: “There is so much terminology batted around when we start to consider Industry 4.0 that it can lead to a cloud of confusion. On one level we are looking at the convergence of business systems with the physical plant control but is this really new? Does this really move us on from where we are today? The real impetus behind Industry 4.0 comes not just from the link between the plant and the enterprise but once we have this link, not only can we have the means to improve performance but also to measure actual performance against an ideal model – the cyber physical system if you will.”

It is this ability for in-depth analysis and continuous improvement that Evans says defines the true spirit of Industry 4.0 - but how do we get there?

Are the UK’s manufacturing plants ready to be smart factories?

Evans explains: “If we built a brand new plant from the ground up on a greenfield site, we could build a smart factory that would embody all the goals of Industry 4.0, all using technologies that are readily available today.

“However the challenge with many manufacturing plants is that their automation systems have evolved over many years, resulting in disparate automation platforms, poor network infrastructure, no data management strategy and very little genuine knowledge of how to get the relevant information out.”

So how does a manufacturer start out on the road to digitalisation? According to Evans, it’s all about the planning: “You have to define exactly what it is the manufacturer is trying to achieve, what are their business drivers and you have to understand where their problem areas are. You have to look at what automation currently exists and what automation network infrastructure is already in place, if any. You have to accept that it’s going to take time – perhaps a number of years – and it’s going to take investment. The key is to look for the quick wins that will demonstrate fast returns against a moderate budget and which prove that the path you’re taking will deliver much bigger benefits over the longer term.”

He continues: “understanding what is happening at the production plant is essential and an infrastructure must be created to achieve this, even if this is approached in stages, whilst always keeping an eye on the end goal. If you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know what’s going wrong.”

Highlighting what can be achieved, Mitsubishi Electric has undertaken smart factory implementations at its own manufacturing facilities. As an example, at its Kani Works switchgear production facility, a smart factory upgrade drove a significant increase in productivity and operating rate and a large reduction in the number of stages in the manufacturing process. By redesigning the production line into a more compact manufacturing cell, utilising robotics and vision as well as conventional automation control, huge savings were made in the occupied floor space – some 85% reduction – and this is particularly significant, as in the majority of manufacturing plants space is at a premium.

This was all achieved using Mitsubishi Electric’s own automation technologies and using complimentary technologies from its e-F@ctory Alliance partners.

Kani Works is a true example of a smart factory embracing the principles of Industry 4.0 and using cyber physical modelling to achieve continuous improvement.

White paper

In its white paper ‘Industry 4.0 – The road to digitalisation in future manufacturing’ Mitsubishi Electric defines the basis of Industry 4.0 and the overlapping principles of interoperability, information, integration, automation and autonomy. It defines the key features of Industry 4.0, looking at the importance of areas such as communications, cyber physical systems, cyber security, new computing models such as edge computing and cloud computing and standards such as OPC UA and the forthcoming RAMI4.0 and IIRA architecture models.

The white paper then lays out the key steps on the road to digitalisation, concluding that, while there are undoubtedly challenges to be overcome, it is quite possible to convert an ageing plant into a smart factory using today’s technologies through correct planning and by taking a structured approach.

“Most plants in the UK haven’t had the luxury of being designed from scratch to meet the goals of Industry 4.0 but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done”, concludes Evans. “With strategic planning and a structured approach, any plant can reap the benefits of optimised, sustainable, safe production that is energy efficient, all within a fully connected supply chain. The road to digitalisation begins with the first step.”