Whether Skype, cloud solutions or collaborative intranets – the digital office is here to stay. At the same time, the digital transformation is also forging ahead into industrial production.
In combination, the new digital technologies surrounding artificial intelligence, Big Data, the Internet of Things, 3D printing and virtual reality are giving rise to the smart factory. The term smart factory is now part of our standard vocabulary when the future of work is concerned. Everything in the smart factory focuses on flexibility, networking and efficiency. But what exactly is behind the term and where does Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany currently stand when it comes to the smart factory?
Faster, more flexible and more efficient
In principle, the smart factory, Industry 4.0 and the like are about optimizing the value chain. Industry hopes that digitalization will enable it to manufacture products even faster in the future while simultaneously addressing customers wishes more flexibly. All of this should be as environmentally friendly and cost-efficient as possible amid continued maximum product quality. Pretty ambitious objectives if you ask me. But the question is: How exactly can they be achieved?
Of course, the specific design of the smart factory differs from industry to industry and ultimately depends on the business model of the individual company. Depending on the requirements, very different concepts can be applied in practice. We have already developed its own vision of the smart factory and has started realizing it step by step. The smart factory of tomorrow at other companies could therefore resemble our vision.
The digital twin
In our view, the factory of tomorrow will be modular. It consists of various standardized production units that can be flexibly combined with one another as required. In this way, the company’s own production facilities can be individually adapted to the respective requirements of a customer over and over again. This makes production flexibly scalable, enabling savings in terms of resources, energy and also warehousing expenses.
In the smart factory, all machines and modules are networked and communicate with each other. As a result, all aspects of production can be centrally controlled and steered. In the past, only the end product could be simulated on the computer; in the smart factory, this applies to each individual work step. Then all physical components of the factory get a digital twin – whether machines, tools or individual components.
This twin is a digital image of the functions and properties of its physical counterpart. It’s made possible by sensors that continuously collect real-time data, whether for the production process or only on the status of individual components. The measurement data are permanently stored and analyzed in the cloud. If an error in a product or machine occurs, the data can be used to immediately identify where exactly it happened. The collected data can be used to optimize individual process steps and eliminate future malfunctions. Ultimately, this comprehensive simulation enables detailed production planning.
We make data usable
Many of these ideas still exist only on paper. However, we have already started with the stepwise digitalization of our production processes. Our “Industry 4.0” initiative marks the starting point for this. The in-house steering group, which we set up in connection with this initiative and consists of representatives from Site Management, Human Resources and the Works Council, has been driving the digital transformation in the production facilities of our Performance Materials business sector forward since 2015.
One of the projects coordinated by this steering group is the Manufacturing Intelligence Program. In the course of this program, Performance Materials has set up a central digital platform where all production-relevant data are systematically combined and evaluated. Based on these data, deviations in running production processes can be identified and resolved even earlier. And, at the same time, it will be possible save costs thanks to the smart, data-based solutions.
People are at the fore
From our perspective, however, the realization of the smart factory is not limited to networking production facilities and optimizing internal supply chains. Another question central to our thoughts on the smart factory is always: What kind of support do we need to give our employees so that they can rise to the future tasks of working in a smart factory? The digitalization of the factory will definitely not succeed without the right concepts for vocational and advanced training.
After all, even if highly sophisticated algorithms are in place, the smart factory will not run without people. While it is true that in the factory of tomorrow people will do a lot less manual work, they will still have to perform more and more steering and control functions within production. Using touch screens or augmented reality glasses, tomorrow’s production workers will have direct access to information on production progress or the status of individual machines and components at any time.
To prevent people from drowning in this flood of information, the factory of the future not only requires user-friendly interfaces and corresponding employee training, but also a company culture that still places the focus on people amid all the progress. Why is this so important? Because the smart factory is a task that we all share and the path to it will only be manageable if we engage our people and take them along on this journey.