Step by step to a connected factory

CIP – Safeguarding quality and hygiene
06/05/2020

All over the world, and in almost every sector, production facilities are undergoing a major transformation. Digitization is changing the way we process goods and raw materials, and how we manufacture products. “Data” becomes the key that opens a door to new technological breakthroughs and transforms the production process. This is the new industrial revolution, or in other words “Industry 4.0”.

Certain industries have already made considerable strides in adopting new technologies by making significant investments. The rate of penetration is constantly increasing but varies from industry to industry and of course from country to country. The Food & Beverage sector has only recently begun to see an increase in investments focused on creating a connected, "smart factory".

Τhe smart factory

The smart factory represents a leap forward compared to traditional automation. It is a fully connected and flexible system that can utilize a continuous flow of data from connected functions and production systems to learn, to adapt, and independently perform entire production processes.

New technologies, including artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cloud computing, are the driving forces behind the so-called "new industrial revolution".


Anatomy of a “smart factory”

What to expect from a smart factory

A fair question is looming. Why would a company invest in Industry 4.0, especially if the existing configuration works without problems? Where would a satisfactory return (ROI) on investment come from? We have highlighted the most important points that will justify the investment decision.

Maximize equipment performance

Each sector of a factory creates data streams, which through continuous analysis reveal performance issues and enable management to make immediate and targeted decisions, even in real-time. This results in lower downtime with correspondingly better utilization of the production line capacity.

Improving procedures and reducing costs

Optimized processes have traditionally led to lower costs with more predictable inventory requirements and more efficient recruitment and staffing decisions.

Lower and predictable maintenance costs

By continuously analyzing a large volume of data from the operation of the equipment, it is possible to identify and highlight the points that need attention. Thus, the maintenance is done purposefully and before a malfunction occurs, minimizing time and cost of a shutdown, and lowering the cost, as large (and expensive) malfunctions are avoided.

Stable product quality - early detection and troubleshooting

A smart factory can recognize anomalies (and what causes them) in the production process, which can lead to defective final products. This helps companies to avoid costly recalls, and the damage they inflict on the company's reputation.

Increased security in the production area

Adopting Industry 4.0 also leads to a smaller environmental footprint, as it makes much better use of resources (energy, water). Health and security are much better as well, as greater automation and autonomy means fewer chances of human error, including industrial accidents.

The building blocks of "Industry 4.0"

Although each production unit is unique, in the sense that it has its own peculiarities and needs, the components for the transition of this unit to the Industry 4.0 era are common in all sectors.

Technology infrastructure

For a smart plant to live to its name, the plant's equipment (pumps, valves, etc.) must be able to communicate with each other and with a central control system. The control refers to the automation of the unit, which is a necessary precondition for the transition to a smart factory, as well as to MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems).

Sensors

As previously mentioned, "data" is the key that opens the door to Industry 4.0. The continuous stream of data is ensured by the extensive use of several sensors, strategically placed along the production line (but also in the logistics departments). Sensor technology has evolved significantly in recent years and today manufacturers offer a wide variety of low-cost sensors that can measure all important parameters.

Communication protocols

One of the determining factors in the transition to a connected, smart factory, is the choice of communication protocol to be used. Deciding on the right protocol early on is critical to building a successful and safely connected factory.

Ability to analyze large volumes of data

The cloud is the data center of the smart factory. Here, the information collected by the sensors is stored, processed, and analyzed. The cloud is also used for edge computing to minimize dependence on central processing hubs. The data collected is analyzed using statistical algorithms and "machine learning", thus enabling immediate interventions to improve the performance of the equipment.

Human resources

The Industry 4.0 factory offers complete control with the least possible human intervention. Of course, this does not mean that the human factor does not play a very important role. Successful transition to a smart factory will require:

  • Workforce that understands and accepts the greater impact of its roles
  • Innovative approaches to attracting talented executives
  • Emphasis on complex roles.

The road to the smart factory

A company's strategy, capabilities, and needs will determine the realistic goals that need to set for the transition to a smart factory. The first phase, therefore, requires a detailed analysis and internal assessment. Once the capabilities and goals have been identified, the implementation steps must then be decided.

Planning steps

After the planning stage is complete, the step by step implementation begins by transitioning a single asset of the production line, aiming to maximize its performance.

For example, in a Food & Beverage factory, an ideal starting point would be the CIP (Cleaning in Place) process. It is a very crucial process of the production cycle, in terms of safety and the use of production resources, but at the same time it is an "autonomous" process and that is why it is ideal to kickstart the transition. Then, after drawing the necessary experience and the appropriate conclusions, we can proceed by improving the performance of an entire production line, or a complete process (e.g. milk processing).

The next step would be the connection of the entire factory, while the final step (for companies with more than one factory) would be the connection and the central management of all the units, with significant improvements in productivity, security, and profitability.

In conclusion

Transitioning to a smart, connected factory is neither easy nor fast. However, with proper planning, it can evolve very smoothly, and without derailing the capital expenditures budget.