Manufacturing Trends, Smart Manufacturing

Digital Factory

By Cara Winther
09 Jun 20

Digital Factory. Who in Manufacturing ever thought they would hear those two words used in the same sentence? You've probably heard this expression along with other phrases describing cutting edge trends in manufacturing. You've probably also heard it in conversations about transforming your plant and making your manufacturing processes more connected.

What is a Digital Factory?

The goal of this blog is to provide a foundation so the next time you hear Digital Factory, you won't have to just nod your head like you completely understand. Kind of like when you mouth the word watermelon, watermelon, watermelon over and over again when you don't know the words to a song and you're expected to chime in. Don't feel like the Lone Ranger. I couldn't come up with this perfect analogy if I hadn't been there myself, once or twice, or too many times to count.  

One thing that is decidedly different when planning for a Digital Factory is the notion of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. There are fewer immovable restrictions than most of us have seen during our time spent in manufacturing. If you've ever taken your teams through the exercise where you ask them, "What would you do if your decisions didn't have anything to do with time, money, right or wrong?", you already have some insight into what the Digital Factory offers.

In the theoretical exercise of planning a Digital Factory, money is not an issue. You have all the time in the world. Resources are unlimited. You are hindered only by your imagination. You don't have to do it like you've always done it. Think about that for a minute. You don't have to do it like you've always done it. There are no absolute right or wrong questions or answers. If you didn't heave a big sigh there, read that last sentence again. Imagine a culture where there are no absolute right answers, and better yet, where there are no absolute wrong answers. There is no wrong way of looking at or doing things. Free at last! Free at last! Thank you, Henry Ford, we're free at last! 

Digital Factory 101

So, when we talk about a Digital Factory, you will also want to have a working knowledge of these related terms and phrases. Some are pretty straightforward, some seem a bit futuristic: 

  • IoT Internet of Things: a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, that have unique identifiers (UIDs) and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.
  • Industry 4.0 - This name stems from what is referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. FYI, the first three Industrial Revolutions occurred in 1765, 1870, and 1969. 
  • Modeling & Simulation - Many of us are aware of software that is used to model and simulate various situations in manufacturing. This technology allows for virtual planning and trial runs to configure, assess, and evaluate different scenarios before any concrete is poured, before anything is set in stone if you will. 
  • AI - Artificial Intelligence is learning by machines as opposed to naturally occurring intelligence in humans. 
  • Real Intelligence, i.e. People - at L2L, we like to say that AI is great, nearly as great as Real Intelligence. That's what we bring to the table. Decades of real world experience, on the shop floor, turning wrenches, living and breathing manufacturing. There is no replacement for Real Intelligence, including the folks on your plant floor. 
  • Robotics, 3D Printing, Cloud Computing  That last one sounds familiar somehow... L2L CLOUD Dispatch ring a bell? 
  • Current elements - People, documentation, parts, materials, equipment/machines, technology, tools, and people. Did I mention people
  • Big Data - lots of information is currently and readily available. If you are unfamiliar with Big Data, please review our L2L Webinar on Big Data (please insert link from L2L Support here, but please make it look nice.)   

A Digital Factory combines all of these elements, some new, some we are very familiar with. Imagine all of these elements being connected and accessible at the touch of a finger! On your smartphone, (flippers, not so much), tablet, laptop. All readily available, visible, transparent. Nothing hidden. Visible and transparent: these are the very motto of L2L. Everyone contributes and everyone has a vested interest in succeeding, together. 

So, why the emphasis on the need for the Digital Factory? Why now? One aspect of the Digital Factory is especially relevant for all of us today: the concept that in a Digital Factory, not every person necessarily goes to work every day. People may rotate in and out of positions, work areas, responsibilities, even plants. Exposure to more than one discipline, meaning cross departmental. 

Benefits of a Digital Factory

What are some of the immediate benefits of moving to a Digital Factory? 

  • Manufacturing environments can rapidly tailor products to individual customer needs. We no longer live in a one size fits all world. As consumer needs and wants change, the goods and services we deliver to our customers must be able to change as well. 
  • All of your data is stored securely in the Cloud: Lists of tools, materials, documentation, specifications, compliance regulations, supplier information, drawings, you name it. The data you can store is unlimited. And best of all, no boxes and boxes of paper. You're not squandering your valuable real estate to house those reams of paper which will only be discarded one day. 
  • You can build up and further enhance the digital capabilities of your plant. More flexible processes and manufacturing capabilities means being able to respond instantly to shifting demands and trends in the industry. Not only can you more quickly change how you build product, you can alter the types of product you build to satisfy market demands. 

If the words Digital Factory cause you anxiety, you're not alone. Many times our initial reaction to something new is fear: of change, loss, confusion. If our young readers will bear with me for a moment, I'll explain what I mean. Remember when microwave ovens first became part of popular culture? Sure, they were super convenient, but anyone who owned a first generation microwave and accidentally had one little tiny piece of foil make its way into the microwave knows what I'm talking about. How about phones? When I was growing up, I can't remember a single household without at least one phone. Rotary dials gave way to push buttons. Call waiting? Caller ID? Wow! That's it. We're tapped out. Phones cannot possibly become more sophisticated. Do you realize that any smartphone on the market today has more than 100K (one hundred thousand) times processing power than Apollo 11, the rocket that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon? 

Nobody gets nervous around their smartphones. Not anymore at least, right? (wink, wink). Not counting early adopters (those people who couldn't wait to take the calculator out of their pocket to make room for their newfangled cellular phones), many of us were somewhat intimidated about learning to use them. Look how brave we all are! Heck, we take pictures, watch movies, check our stock portfolio, even pay for things with our phones. Could you have imagined that way back when? Don't even get me started about smart watches! We don't have that kind of time! Get it? 

Keep these things in mind when you start the transformation process. Becoming a Digital Factory will not happen overnight, nor should it. Look for relatively small areas of opportunity. What can you digitize initially that will not cause upheaval and dismay?

Getting Started

Here are some target rich activities that are perfect starting places for the beginning of your Digital Factory:

  • Any processes or activities that include mundane tasks performed in exactly the same way, over and over and over again. 
  • Measuring and record keeping that is currently being done by hand, on paper. 
  • Tracking shipments, like raw materials and components from your suppliers, freight and delivery of finished goods to consumers. 
  • Turning lights on and off when people enter a work space and when no one is in the building. 
  • Work tasks that carry inherent risks to your teams. Hazardous waste transport and disposal, for example. 
  • Any safety sensitive tasks that can be automated, modified, or removed altogether. 
  • Clocking in and out, manually entering time and forwarding to payroll. 

 

You want your teams to embrace these incremental digital changes so they can go on to steward more changes themselves. 

Leaders in factories across the globe are doing more and more with less and less paper. A truly paperless manufacturing world is becoming the reality. Paper systems had their time and place, but no longer. The time, money, effort, and energy saved by a Digital Factory feeds positively and directly to your bottom line. 

If you're already headed down the lean path and reaping the rewards, don't overlook this high powered arrow in your quiver. See how L2L's LES will help you bring it all together. The Digital Factory of the Future is here. Welcome aboard! We're thrilled to have you! 

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