The ongoing Pandemic, coupled with the already surging need to digitize and pursue Industry 4.0, is forcing organizations around the world to reimagine their strategy, reconsider the resilience of their value chain and redefine agility. Speed in service and effective product delivery are becoming top priorities, coupled with the urgent need to be more efficient and work with limited resources and reduced costs. This is quickly becoming the ‘new normal.’

Like it or not, the stage is set for rapid value chain-wide transformation, and the stakes are higher than ever. The ability of a value chain to pre-empt challenges and counter them swiftly with automated and intelligent actions, cascaded across the entire supply chain, might just be the difference that saves or sinks an organization. It also prepares them for resilience to offset any new crisis that may occur. 

Industry 4.0 had already begun to show results for early adopters, even before the pandemic hit, with large-scale digitization of operations and autonomous, self-governed plants becoming the deliverables of a successful Industry 4.0 implementation. The pandemic has only expedited the need to achieve this digitization and autonomy. However, while the need to pursue a digital transformation of existing operation is extremely clear, the road to achieve this is filled with challenges and complexities.

One of the prerequisites of pursuing an Industry 4.0 project is the availability of a scalable IT infrastructure which allows for the adoption of modern technologies. For manufacturing value chains, this means the plants should be able to connect and communicate with the enterprise, while being able to self-govern through the automation of the production process. The ability to communicate and integrate in order to reach the levels of ‘self-tuning’ automation can only be achieved if a modern MES application is at the center of the IT infrastructure across all manufacturing plants. A modern MES can make the shop floor visible across the value chain by connecting to enterprise-level applications, creating a data infrastructure, enforce workflow automation and create a digital twin of the operation for better, optimized management of assets.

Brownfield (existing) plants offer a different type of challenge when implementing Industry 4.0. These organizations, whether multi-site or multi-plant, may differ significantly from site to site or plant to plant. Even within the same organization, they may be at different levels of operational and IT infrastructure maturity. Each plant may have varied equipment, different and differentiated production lines and a mix of process control equipment, which implies the IT applications governing them too are likely different, with solutions coming from both different vendors and home-grown solutions.

Each plant may have its own intrinsic knowledge base, privy to the personnel working there, but not a part of the common organizational knowledge base. Add to this the operational parameters recorded and reviewed, which likely vary by plant and infrastructure, and you can see that to enforce any type of standardization is at best, challenging.

Pursuing an Industry 4.0 or modern MES in a Brownfield project, you must work with the basic plant structure, whether it’s single or multi-plant, complex or simple IT infrastructure, and varied or homogenous automation and information management solutions. You do not have the luxury of a Greenfield project to design everything from ground zero.

In a Greenfield (net new) project, you are given a clean slate, and your Industry 4.0 project can start with the requisite strategy, define your given output, and create an infrastructure/solution that aligns your supply chain needs and vendor selection to more or less guarantee success.

Newer technologies, such as IIoT, Machine Learning, Augmented Reality and other Industry 4.0-related technologies can be designed into the processes from the beginning, eliminating the need for special integrations, custom code and expensive one-off, ‘shoe-horned’ solutions. Your modern MES can become the centerpiece of your strategy, working with other enterprise-level and operational-level applications to ensure a cohesive infrastructure, feeding your knowledge management and control management needs.

So, in a project which is being designed today from scratch, it is safe to say that an Industry 4.0-level operation might be achieved faster and with comparative ease, as there are virtually no complexities presented by the existing infrastructure, other than challenges which may be posed due to workforce engagement issues and management involvement in the project.

A Brownfield project is dramatically different. There might be layers upon layers of complexity, ranging from equipment to IT applications and workflow to process configurations. But, given that implementing an MES and propelling toward complete and value chain wide digitization is the only logical way forward, the only real question which remains is how does an organization counter inherent complexities in a Brownfield project and still achieve Industry 4.0-level operations?

Using a methodical way forward

Given that there are numerous complexities and possible hurdles which lie in the way of a successful digital transformation for a Brownfield site, we suggest a simple yet time-tested methodology.

First. do a detailed analysis and diagnosis of your current operation. The team doing this should include internal experts, external consultants and the possible MES vendor. The goal is to establish a clear picture of status quo from an Industry 4.0 project perspective; a 360 degree evaluation will allow the management to understand the exact requirements which exist from an IT and operations infrastructure perspective.

Second. The next step would be to create an implementation plan, where the use cases across plants would be determined for MES functionality and rollout. What must happen at this stage is to determine the desired end state, so that the infrastructure (MES integration with the control layer, IT infrastructure, and desired reporting and analysis) can be cleanly defined.

Brownfield considerations include application integration, network infrastructure, reporting and analytics. MES integration with the process equipment, new or revised workflows and IT-level application integration should ensure that the MES MES is fed the information it needs to provide the requisite knowledge management and operational oversight. The plan should accommodate future needs for additional functionality roll out at a later stage, while still making the MES the central application which governs the operation.

The MES chosen should be a modular application, which depending on the level of IT maturity, can either integrate with or completely replace legacy applications, without any operational disruption, allowing for a seamless adoption or transition, whatever might be the case. It is also assumed that the application has the scale to capture, incorporate, measure and manipulate the millions of transactions which may happen on the shop floor.           

Third. The next logical step for a Brownfield MES would be to determine what functional changes need to be made. This includes changes to the IT infrastructure and shop floor to match the agreed-upon functionality and prioritized use cases. This step might involve either replacing or retrofitting process hardware and equipment with sensors, the addition of servers or cloud selection for scalability, and building APIs to ensure IT applications across the value chain are integrated to deliver on the desired use cases.

Fourth. Implement a MES pilot. A proof of concept, or pilot, can quickly show the strengths and weaknesses of the design. Most companies will select a single site reflective of the needs of the organization (the site that shows the most uniformity) and use a three to six month period to ‘prove out’ the design prior to corporate-wide rollout.

Fifth. Finally, once the pilot is proved, the rollout can begin. Infrastructure can be finalized, application and hardware changes can be made and the MES can continue its rollout.

At this stage, it’s important that the project team engages users and monitors how the application is helping them improve their work. That can be the basis for a ROI discussion (should the company require that as part of the justification for a Brownfield Industry 4.0 project). It will also reinforce the use cases that were created. Typical MES benefits include improvements in quality and yield, reductions in cost and waste, and an improvement in efficiency, labor and materials management.

Any implementation of MES for a brownfield project can yield success and even aid future continuous improvements and step changes needed for digital transformation, if it is implemented keeping the future scalability and current operational and IT constraints in mind. This is where having a right MES partner becomes such an important factor. The vendor should be well acquainted with your industry, have referenceable case studies to offer and a solid infrastructure of training and implementation resources to ensure success.

To be prepared for the challenges of the economy and market, it’s becoming a necessity to pursue digital transformation and Industry 4.0 within your organization.

Brownfield plants, with their mix of legacy, custom and off the shelf equipment and solutions presents more challenges in achieving a unified, standardized approach to reaching Industry 4.0 digitization. Having a modern MES orchestrate your processes and become the backbone for the adoption of IIoT and other Industry 4.0 technologies is a natural choice.