The management of a factory should be an ongoing pursuit of continuous improvement. But there are still great leaps forward which can be taken to improve factories and production lines further.
Over many years, mechanisation has enabled factories to continually produce more, better products at a lower cost with less waste and resources, but there is only so much further that this path can take us.
The technology being used in factories today is often jaw dropping and while people in the manufacturing sector might be used to the sight of fast moving machines, robotic armatures, machine vision systems and networks of conveyors, we all enjoy the look on someone’s face as we allow them to see inside a factory for the first time:
That’s because stepping onto a factory floor can often feel like stepping into the future.
This is because the factories of today do look like the factories we imagined when we were young; they’re full of gleaming mechanical masterpieces which run faster than the eye can see and they do their jobs extremely well. So where do we go from here?
While the factories of today may look impressive, there is still a great deal of room for improvement. But this improvement won’t simply come from further mechanical advancements; our factories have to become smarter.
Here, I’ll describe the pathway which I believe will lead us toward a whole new generation of factory production, in three practical steps.
STEP 1: Make use of historical data
Factories are gold mines of useful data but almost all of them have untapped seams, rich with valuable data that goes completely unused.
While each of the following steps toward our factory of the future require some level of technological aid, whether its data connections or artificial intelligence, the first step is something that every factory can do right away and it can be as simple as putting data into a spreadsheet.
The purpose of any factory is the transformation of materials into saleable products with maximum efficiency and quality with minimal costs and minimal environmental impact. With this in mind, the first step to progression is to identify how efficient your factory really is.
You should be able to know how many products fall short of your quality standards and in what ways, how much your factory and each element of it costs to run and how much energy, material, water, fuel and packaging you use as well as how much waste and pollution you produce - the more detail you can record and process, the better.
This data can be easily recorded and calculated but it amazes me how often companies neglect this most important task.
Every business leader knows the importance of recording and processing their financial data to evaluate the health of a business, but many companies neglect the important task of collecting factory data with as much diligence.
Just like staying on top of your finances, recording, processing and visualising factory data can be time consuming and it takes discipline and dedication to ensure data is recorded properly, but the insights even rudimentary data can provide more than make up for this.
With our products such LineView and DigiView, we can make this whole process fast and painless, recording and handling data from a myriad of sources and presenting this in straightforward and easy to understand ways.
With the historical data from across your factory floor, you can identify which sections of your production line are underperforming, where and how you’re wasting resources and production time, identify how and when maintenance is required and you can use this information to make real improvements.
Even slight and subtle trends over a prolonged period of time can be identified and rectified, helping you to save money, increase output and improve sustainability.
STEP 2: Get data in real-time
The next step toward the factory of the future is to be able to get data in just as much detail in real-time. This means you can know, at a glance, the status of every element of your factory floor or production line, as well as live quality control data, energy and material usage as well as any technical, staffing or resource issues.
While historical data can be used to make long term improvements and to plan and schedule interventions, live data can enable adjustments, alterations and solutions to be implemented as soon as the need arises.
Our next generation of software solutions digitises and collates data streams on safety, process information, energy and utility, line and OEE monitoring, quality checks, workforce and more. This data is then instantly reported, along with detailed insights and visualisations, to provide a comprehensive overview of real-time factory data that’s simple to digest, search and explore.
In order for managers and operators to be fully empowered to make any and all necessary interventions and to make informed decisions, it’s important that they can access the data they need wherever they are. With our new generation of systems, data and visualisations can be viewed from individual workstations and control panels, as well as being available on the cloud, enabling it to be viewed from computers and tablets, even if a manager is away from the factory.
It’s only by being fully across every nuance, change and variable that factories can find ways to make big improvements in efficiency and performance, but of course, with the combination of historic and real-time data, even more can be achieved.
STEP 3: Use data to predict the future
The final step into the future is exactly that; using all of the data, historical and real-time, to accurately and reliably predict problems, opportunities and changes before they occur and adapting accordingly, knowing the exact impact your interventions will have in future.
This is one of the greatest benefits of our next generation of products: Our smart systems, powered by cloud computing, artificial intelligence and data from across the factory floor, will take manufacturing into the future. Better still, the systems will also lay the groundwork for the next great innovations in production.
With data being gathered, recorded, processed, and presented to identify new ways to improve and to determine actions to improve performance and reduce inefficiencies, we are at a point where machinery and production lines can become autonomous; being able to make their own adjustments, corrections and alterations in anticipation of situations which can be reliably predicted.
This might sound fanciful, but the exact same thing is happening already with domestic vehicles: The development of cars and production lines have always mirrored one another, right back to the first mass produced car which rolled off the first production line.
Like factories, cars have become data gathering behemoths, able to record, process and visualise data ranging from location and road positioning to road conditions, distances and relative velocities. Cars can diagnose internal faults, identify hazards, adjust and adapt to improve performance, and they can now use this information to safely drive themselves. Cars can determine the routes they should take, control their speed and steering and avoid hazards without any intervention from the driver. I have spoken more about it here.
Equipped with historical and live data and using this to empower artificial intelligence through cloud computing systems, the future of the factory is to make factories operate, manage and improve themselves, with minimal intervention from human operators.
Our next generation of Lineview products will bring factories right up to this point, helping to make factories to reach whole new levels of production performance and efficiency.
I can’t wait to show you what we’ve been working on.