Industry 4.0, Smart Factory, Digital Factory, Connected Enterprise, Factory of the Future, Plant floor to ERP, Convergence of IT & OT, IIOT and Digitization are either connected terms or very close to each other with slight differences.

It is about connecting production floor processes and operations to business systems to gain productivity, efficiency and new capabilities by using technology and fewer human resources as we progress in this journey.

  • Doing all physical tasks with the help of robots, PLCs, conveyors, sensors, AGVs and machines in general. How much of these physical tasks are automated will depend on the financial viability, skill sets, appetite for technology, risk, complexity of process etc.
  • Collecting the data systematically; automatically, paperless, end to end
    • To get the dashboards, reports to run the factory in real time accessible to all levels
    • Use data to autonomously generate intelligence / knowledge to make the processes, quality, flows and integration between different processes better, easier, faster, cheaper.

Exhibit A is my 1 page view to explain the automation & digitization in manufacturing.

I would like to start by explaining this 5 part diagram.

Part A: Plant Floor

It is where the product is manufactured. The center point here is the PLC/PC/PAC. (PLC = Programmable Logical Unit; PC = Personal Computer; PAC = Programmable Automation Controller). In the document referred to as the PLC going forward.

The PLC helps to run the physical world –think motion, think closed loop process control (the process steps, handling, inspection, forming, cutting, packaging, stamping etc) through logical management of various assets/technologies like Conveyors, Sensors, Robots, RFID, Vision Inspection Systems, Mechanical Systems, Machines etc .

The PLC also connects to the HMI / SCADA system to display visual, real time information – KPIs, alarms, graphs, visual machine, workshop condition, product information etc from either the information from PLC or from the databases. (HMI/SCADA is a very important tool to empower the supervisor, techs, and operators on the production floor. It is their window – a visualization tool to all digital information to run the factory floor).

The PLC also has the ability to write information to a database and retrieve information from a database. Also not all data from the PLC needs to be displayed on SCADA, it can be stored in the database for future use or not stored at all. And a PLC can pull data from other sources like 3rd party software, MES, ERP or analyzed data.

Part B: Production Databases

So the production databases collect information from the production floor related to process parameters, alarms, machine state, sensors etc through the PLC. They can also collect information entered through HMI /SCADA systems by user input. Most of this backend data can be used as information feed to front end ie. MES.

We can also bring information from MES and ERP systems and write to production database systems either to be used as logic to facilitate a process or to be displayed on the SCADA system.

Think of these production databases as having all the

  • Process & Product information- sensors data, images, parameters, raw material, recipes, product routing information, rules
  • People information in terms of task performed, level of training, level of login – inspectors, techs, leads & supervisor
  • Machine & System information – cycle times, downtimes, alarms, events, bottlenecks, starving, blocking, asset maintenance history

Part C: MES & ERP

MES & ERP are software packages which provide the information in real time or historical modes. The real purpose simply put for use of software using lean principles is to make work easier reducing human effort.

 As you know MES is more focused on manufacturing aspects which help with making product efficiently, correctly with all the required data to monitor performance, compliance, quality, speed etc. Some of the topics covered in MES are WIP tracking, Asset Utilization, Scheduling, Performance monitoring, labor management, qualify management, maintenance management.

On the other hand ERP systems are more focused to help with business administration tasks of an enterprise. The modules would typically include Finance, HR, Purchasing, Inventory, Distribution, Forecasting, Planning & Customer Relationship Management.

What is important is there be an interface between MES and ERP system so the data flows are linked to improve efficiency, productivity and reduce errors. This interface also helps connect manufacturing with entire operations giving an enterprise wide view and facilitates better & informed decision making which translates into higher efficiency, productivity and less errors.

Also other discrete third party systems like attendance system, training systems, preventive maintenance systems could be integrated with MES and ERP if they already are not.

Part D: Data & Data Analytics

Before I talk about data & data analytics I want to point out that it important to understand the datacenter (server, storage and network) requirement which connects the machines to the software that collects, stores data and runs all the other layers as Controls, SCADA, MES, ERP and data analytics. The choice to host this infrastrucuture on site versus 3rd party cloud computing provider or a hybrid combination depends on the requirements in terms of capex available, scalability, speed, computational needs, reliability, security, redundancy, disaster recovery etc

To be successful at data analytics you need to make sure you have the right type of data, correct data and right level of data.

So the PLC is collecting production data, certain modules of MES are collecting production data and ERP systems are collecting business data.

So now once you condition and contextualize this data at all levels, there is a tremendous opportunity within all levels and in between levels to create new insights, patterns & intelligence. The data analytics tools can vary from simple excel, to business intelligence tools like Tableau and Clickview, to artificial intelligence, pattern recognition to cognitive tools.

Once you learn from the data you can reteach your control systems, processes or train people with this new gained insight and make them smarter. So it becomes this continuous loop of learning from data and making the systems autonomous and adaptive.

Part E: Manufacturing Apps

So here the idea is to go paperless eg: process audit (on paper) and create apps in terms of dash boards, trend able live data, reports, visual factory, alerts from production numbers, maintenance, PMs, downtime, late delivery, see bottlenecks and processes starving from downstream product, e-learning, e-documents, e-hiring, e-auditing, everything that makes sense etc with a view to improve human efficiency, reactivity and productivity.

I will further share sub topics of this series in my future articles.

  • Business Case for Automation/Digitization; Benefits of Automation/Digitization
  • Steps and the journey to get to Automation/Digitization
  • Key Technologies in Automation/Digitization
  • Skillsets & Organization for Automation/Digitization
  • Data & Data Analytics in context of Automation/Digitization


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