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Why the Smart Factory?

Connector Geek
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The smart factory is here to stay.  According to Reuters, the smart factory market is growing 10% every year as more and more organisations adopt this new technology.  The smart factory is the end result of the new industrial revolution known as Industry 4.0. 

A smart factory can be described as a facility where the production process – the factory floor – is connected to control systems to create a single entity.  By creating a process that takes input generated by a wide range of sources, from the customer demands to the functioning of the machines themselves, it is possible to work more efficiently and to adapt more quickly to changing requirements.

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Smart technology is not just for the Factory Floor

While the readiest example of the smart factory can be found in the manufacturing environment, the technology can apply equally to many operations.  This article will use the traditional factory as its example, but remember that this technology has huge potential in industries as diverse as mining, logistics and even scientific research.

A New Language

In common with other new technologies, there is a whole new language to learn.  Despite the advantages that these techniques can deliver, getting to grips with new concepts can be a barrier to adoption.  However, it need not be scary.

The first thing to understand is that this new industrial revolution does not make everything else obsolete overnight.  In fact, the power of Industry 4.0 is that it will bring together all of the existing equipment and make the use of the data that will be collected.  Let’s take a look at how the factory might look in the future.

All About the Layers

The goal of the smart factory is to integrate all of the different activities that contribute to the output of the facility.  This will combine the supply chain, production, maintenance and scheduling of the factory into a single entity.

In the traditional factory, all of these activities would have been conducted separately.  For example, the logistics of obtaining and delivering raw materials to the production line would be handled by the purchasing department.  They could be using a different system to the production team, making the sharing of data problematic. 

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The Smart Factory in Layers
Image:  SPE

In the smart factory, the demands of the sales department are shared directly with the production team, giving full visibility of the needs of the customer.  In turn, the requirements of the production team are then shared with the purchasing department to ensure that raw materials are ordered and delivered in time.

This is possibly the most obvious benefit of Industry 4.0. The integration of all levels of the factory allows the manufacturer to respond to market demands and trends much more quickly than traditional methods would allow.  This increased agility and flexibility reduces time-to-market and gives manufacturers a competitive advantage.

This is not the only benefit, however.  One of the key features of the integrated factory is that data is shared both up and down the network.  Machines are fitted with sensors that provide real-time information about the status of production, and also allow monitoring of the health of the machines themselves.  By collecting this data and analysing changes, it is possible to identify potential problems before they threaten the smooth running of the factory.  Maintenance can be scheduled to minimise the amount of time that a machine is idle.

The challenge is how to connect these different functions.  In order to understand their function, the factory is split into a number of layers.  At the top of the pyramid is the enterprise layer.  Within this layer exist all of the systems to administer and control the business, from sales and marketing to logistics and maintenance.  It is at this level that the overall running of the organisation is conducted.

Below this is the control layer.  This contains the systems that receive the demands from the enterprise layer and converts them into a work schedule, ensuring that the raw materials are in the right place and that the operators are ready.

At the lowest level is the device or field layer.  This is the factory floor where all of the machines are operated.  In a traditional factory before the era of Industry 4.0, these machines would all have been controlled locally.  Skilled operators would ensure that the processes ran smoothly, with little interaction with the rest of the operation. 

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All Layers Working in Harmony

Now, the machines are all connected, sharing data both with each other and with the upper layers of the business.  However, it is only with the smart factory that these layers have begun to communicate fully.  Information has become a critical raw material within the smart factory, and it is shared between all layers of the factory.

Topology

Topology is a word familiar to many in the world of computer networking.  With the changes being brought about by Industry 4.0, it is also a word being heard more in the industrial sector.  As the requirements for machines to be part of the smart factory grow, the distinction between machines and network devices is starting to blur.  Machines need to be an integral part of the network in order to share the data with other layers of the business.

However, there is a barrier to a fully connected smart factory.  Unless a factory is brand new, most users are faced with the need to connect existing machinery together and integrate it with the higher layers of the network.  Unlike the enterprise and control layers which have been using common computer technologies for many years, the connections between machines often still use industrial Bus-type systems.  To create a truly connected factory, there is a need to interface between these two communications systems.

Help Is At Hand

Despite these complexities, the modular nature of the smart factory means that integrating new and existing equipment is straightforward.  From modular computers (111-3551) to RFID technology (800-2726) , the smart factory is becoming a plug-and-play solution that will make it easier to adopt.

The final challenge is bridging the last gap between the interface between the bus-type systems of the device layer and the computers of the control layer.  Fortunately for both new and existing users, there is a new protocol that will finally allow the machines on the factory floor to truly form part of the enterprise network. 

Keep your eyes on DesignSpark over the coming weeks and months as look in more detail at the features of the Single Pair Ethernet and how it can help you achieve the goal of the smart factory.

Connector Geek is Dave in real life. After three decades in the industry, Dave still likes talking about connectors almost as much as being a Dad to his two kids. He still loves Lego too. And guitars.

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