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Most modern day metal working companies are already – to a certain amount – digitalized, what they are struggling with after reaching the first steps, is to fuse the bits and parts of their digital company into one smart connected factory and get to the most crucial realization, that a digital factory begins at the intake.
 
The simple reason behind the importance of the intake is the following: you invested in a smart factory to be able to provide higher product quality, a shorter throughput time and competitive pricing.
 
Well, these things don’t only depend on the capacity of your machines, but mostly of the process from receiving the order to start of production.
 
As a technically interested business owner / manager you might have the following questions:
 
  1. Why do my digitalization projects end up nowhere?
  2. What are the fundamental components of my digital factory needs?
  3. Which next step makes the most impact on my digital factory?
The Wrong Expectations About a Smart Factory
 
Back in the days, one could buy a machine and some automation and have it running last for 20 years. The world has changed, and rapidly so.
 
Nowadays, it’s relatively easy to buy machines and have the corresponding software set up by the machine and software vendors. The problem is that this does not directly make the business more competitive.
 
Because of the globalization, the internet and more educated customers just having more capacity on the machines don’t guarantee more business to be done.
 
Unfortunately, most manufacturing companies are still focussed on the newest and fastest machines but forget that a true industry 4.0 mindset is about connectivity. I call this the “Faster horse syndrome”.
 
What has to be done is providing customers with a faster, more reliable and especially flexible service? This can only be achieved through a good strategy and corresponding processes.
 
A process needs to be supported by software. And having a fully automated process for the entire flow from order to delivery proves to be challenging for most metalworking businesses. This is because they haven’t made the shift in thinking: a smart factory of the future is now a software based business.
 
It’s absolutely crucial to understand this shift:
 
A smart factory does not win from the competition by buying more machines but rather by having an integrated process from start to finish. Only at that stage it becomes interesting to add smarter machines to the business.
 
A fast machine is not adding much value if it does not integrate well with the rest of the process, since it will most likely be standing still all the time anyway. That’s why we need to stop looking for faster horses and look for a more effective approach: an integrated whole.
 

Software and consulting are vital for success

 
It used to be common to invest significantly, sometimes millions, into machines. That’s just business as it was for almost a century. But fast-forward to the 21st century and now it’s no longer certain if this is the right way.
 
Can one invest the same amount into software? Will it pay off?
 
A good software solution should effectively reduce operating costs, increase outputs on existing solutions and perhaps even run 24/7 (without extra staff needed).
 
Unfortunately not all projects turn out that way.
 
The problem is that it’s often forgotten that it’s not just the software OR the machine. As mentioned earlier; it needs to be integrated by design, rather than later once software or machines are already bought.
 
Simply buying a software is also similar to just buying a machine. As long as it isn’t integrated with the rest of the factory it will not provide the expected benefits. Most likely, it will not be used to its capacity, and even stand still most of the time.
 
Buying software without an integration partner is usually a recipe for disaster. You have to understand, that you own employees are mostly not educated in the matter and even if, the time being consumed by an integration project is not to be underestimated. Having the right expectation about such a project is therefore crucial before you start.
 

Your factory should be integrated and paperless by design

Now that the expectations have been set. It’s time to get to the essence of the digital factory. What are the fundamental components and how do they work together?
 
You have to have a blueprint of an integrated design which is maintained over the entire digitalization project and beyond.
 
There have been attempts to explain the design of a digital factory before. Most notably in the ISA 95 model:
 
(source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ANSI/ISA-95)
 
For smaller and medium-sized metal working business this model is less relevant, because usually the machine vendor takes care of the control and execution layers. Most commonly they also provide software to control and program the machines with.
 
The problem is that this model neglects the most major difference between the typical industry 4.0 solutions and models in the market: a metalworking job shop is specialized at (very) small series of custom products and are heavily relying on human interactions in the process.
 
A major trend in the market is to go online and offer services through customer portals, such as online orders but also full service portals for quotations.
 
That’s why we need a better model that’s based on your business.
 

The New 5 Layer Model for Metalworking Factories

 
Your digital factory needs the following software systems to be working together:
 
  1. Cloud solutions, such as your own web portal and analytics software
  1. Enterprise resource planning (ERP)
  1. Computer Aided Machining (CAM) + Computer Aided Design software (CAD)
  1. Manufacturing Execution Software (MES)
  1. Machines with digital control standards (SCADA – OPC-UA)
 
 
 

Bring it all together in the ideal factory

 
Every smart factory uses different software systems which have overlying capabilities.
 
It’s common to have extra software systems in your business as long as there is a central strategy and flow that is made for scale.
 
I’ve found out that for every factory, no matter it’s size, or the machines and software they are using, the goal is to develop an integrated factory, based on the following model:
 
The work intake process:
 
You are working completely paperless from the start. Not even emails are necessary any more.
 
All your work should come in through the cloud, through your self-service portals or your supply chain integration software.
 
In order to determine pricing for your products you will be using algorithms and machine learning to base it on past performance instead of human estimations.
 
In the meanwhile your software analyses and even predicts trends and behaviours of your business, to determine delivery times and adjusts pricing accordingly.
 
 
The production process:
 
Your central ERP system is taking care of your entire operational process, product management and finances.
 
Your CAM is simulating production before you start work, to make sure everything is manufacturable.
 
All your programs are centrally stored and connected to the product data. In This way it can be reused when the product is manufactured again and a history of past performance can be analysed for product improvement.
 
On the shop-floor level everything is paperless as well. Employees work with mobile phones and tablets.
 
The machines report back their exact behaviours. The process can be monitored for any product in real time. Automatic and daily quality controls or work instructions are also centrally and automatically executed.
 
Last but not least: the machines are fully connected, meaning they register all their necessary data to measure performance and effectiveness.
 
 
 

Start your digital factory at the intake

If you are still working with Excel or paper to make quotations, the first and foremost priority should be to get proper insight in how calculations are being made.
 
In general most mistakes that happen in production can be traced back to faulty processes at the work intake and can be prevented with digital calculation software.
 
This varies from having wrong pricing estimations, production times or even registering special customer demands.
 
The first shift any factory should make is to register as much information in the commercial process as possible. In this way the data can be used later down the line.
 
If multiple people calculate the same product the price should always be the same. The only way to truly achieve such a reliable system is by automating it.
 
In my opinion, the foremost priority for any SMB should be to have a fully configured modern calculation software that supports 3D-models of both parts and entire assemblies, ideally with all working steps that are available in the business.
 
Let’s remember two mantra’s:
  • Garbage in is garbage out
  • A digital factory starts at the intake
 

Your next step

 
If what you read here speaks to you and you want to learn more about what makes Industry 4.0 different, then secure your copy of my report “Industry 4.0: The 5 pitfall to avoid for sheet metal fabricators” at https://get.vanenkhuizen.com/report
 
And of course, if you have questions how to apply this model in your business feel free to schedule your free 20 minutes introductory conversation with me through https://www.vanenkhuizen.com/.

Author

Luke van Enkhuizen

With over 10 years of experience in the automation for smart factories, Luke is your partner in Industry 4.0