Preparing Digital Infrastructure for the Future of Manufacturing

Understanding and implementing a digital factory mindset is essential for change management, growth and preparing for the future of manufacturing.

PTC has sponsored this post.

(Image courtesy of PTC.)

(Image courtesy of PTC.)

The manufacturing industry has long operated in two worlds: the physical realm of stamping, molding, machining, forming and assembling as well as the virtual world of research, design, measurement, control and quality. Change is often incremental, as the stakes are high and operations with hundreds of millions of dollars in capital assets take risk seriously. Change also adds risk in the form of opportunity costs with production changes and unknowns that must be handled by large management teams of large operations in industries within major sectors such as automotive, aerospace, medical and energy. Change isn’t easy.

However, that doesn’t mean change and disruption aren’t coming; they are inevitable, and always have been. Manufacturers are change-averse because they know what uncontrolled change—such as breakdowns, a market shift or even a pandemic—can do to their businesses. It can be argued that the real risk isn’t necessarily as concrete as equipment or production line changes, but rather, being left behind by technology that is changing the competitive landscape.

A New Approach to Operational Improvement

Finding new ways to do things more efficiently is commonplace in the world of manufacturing. Businesses have been built on helping manufacturing organizations streamline their processes. In fact, one of the highest-paying factory floor jobs entails refining CAM and CNC operations to shave minutes, or even seconds, off program runtimes.

Manufacturers are efficiency-hungry. They always want to find better ways of doing specific processes or making a facility more streamlined, but that idea has almost always been based in the realm of operational technology (OT). The world of information technology (IT) has been pushing its way into manufacturing for the last 10 years, and is a big part of the fourth industrial revolution.

Operational improvement isn’t new. In fact, it’s been around for quite some time, but it’s only within the last decade that companies could improve operations with something more than tweaks to a machine or to the layout of the factory floor.

Abby Eon, general manager at Kepware, a division of PTC, explained, “I think we always hear about digital transformation as something that’s going to lead to people being resilient.  Yes, there are amazing possibilities for optimizing your workforce leveraging Internet of Things (IoT) and augmented reality (AR) solutions. But it could also be as simple as automating a process so two people aren’t standing so close together in a pandemic. That right there is creating resiliency.”

Gathering Data Is One Thing, Using It Is Another

Arguably, Industry 4.0 has been a long time coming, and it has yet to be in full swing. As mentioned in a recent piece, “One of the biggest challenges [isn’t] necessarily collecting data, but rather, doing something useful with that data.”

Many businesses saw the value of data gathering early on in the implementation of Industry 4.0. After all, we’re talking about manufacturing businesses that are really good at calculating and mitigating risk—which gets much easier with more data. But once you’ve gathered an endless stream of unnavigable information, what do you do with it?

“From my perspective, the biggest and hardest part was really understanding the manufacturing process. This way I could understand the data and drive the output,” said Stephen Ceccarini, IT Manager at automotive parts manufacturer Brembo North America, where they recently implemented an IoT solution.

(Image courtesy of PTC.)

(Image courtesy of PTC.)

The challenge with leveraging all that data into something useful is connecting OT with IT. The OT stakeholders know what data will hold the most value, while the IT stakeholders understand how to collect that data and connect the digital dots.

“As IT, we don’t understand where our data is coming from or why we’re collecting that data,” Ceccarini continued. “Then we don’t know what to do with it, after it’s been collected. Here at Brembo, I worked very closely with the plant project managers on these projects to understand what data they wanted and where it came from.”

The collaboration between IT and OT is key to not only gathering the proper data, but also finding the best way to leverage that data for a more efficient factory, both digitally and physically.

“When you start looking at the companies who are successful with digital transformation, they’re thinking more holistically about their data,” Eon explained. “When they’re programming a PLC controlling some kind of asset, they’re thinking about different use cases for that asset and its data. Many times, they’re working alongside data scientists who are thinking about AI and analytics use cases like preventative maintenance. They are thinking about ways that data might need to be a normalized, processed, or manipulated in some way. It’s really about establishing a data strategy versus continuing to create more data silos with point-to-point connections.”

The Digital Factory Exists to Serve the Physical Factory

Ceccarini explained that there is a great degree of importance ascribed to the personnel working with OT. They need to find the most efficient ways to run machines and produce products—every minute counts on the factory floor. That’s why IT is there to help collect data.

“First of all, at Brembo, we are a high-performance organization. We work in the world of racing and we want to be ahead of everything. We want to win,” Ceccarini said.

“My approach tries to be very pragmatic and makes sure that wherever we (IT) go, we are not impacting the production line,” he adds. “As Brembo grows, and Industry 4.0 becomes more mainstream and more and more data is going to be available, there’s going to be a fine line between IT and OT and where you can keep these boundaries of production. Because maybe today we can afford losing our data of production, while we do maintenance on a switch for example—but tomorrow, we probably won’t be able to afford that.”

Leveraging a digital twin becomes less about finding ways to build the digital asset and more about leveraging it alongside data and other digital assets that also exist in the physical space.

“With the concept of a digital twin,” Eon said. “We have something that is a digital representation of something physical, but it’s not just information about the asset and traditional data available in the OT space. You want to start thinking about the processes and things like spatial data, which will be augmented from separate sensors, cameras and other sources.”

“You also have data around the origin of these assets and these processes that you’re going to get from IT-based systems,” she continued. “And if this asset goes into the world and becomes a connected product, you need to track what’s happening and enable feedback loops. And so, this model that you built, it should be an aggregation of data from all of these different sources, and not just siloed to the asset itself.”

(Image courtesy of PTC.)

(Image courtesy of PTC.)

Putting the digital factory and similar assets into use by the physical factory is the pinnacle component to properly leveraging all the data that is being gathered. These digital assets are valuable both for creating more efficient physical factories, and for finding tangible methods of growth.

“The reality is, with the generation that we’re in, we can have everything on-demand.  Customization is an expectation — it’s going to be increasingly critical that we’re able to do that. Decisions become very important as to what we put into our digital twins and how we track the lifecycle of assets,” Eon said.

This may be a longer-term benefit of creating digital twins and fully adopting Industry 4.0, but Ceccarini explained exactly why this concept has immediate value. “One of the biggest advantages that Industry 4.0 gives us at Brembo is understanding our processes to continuously improve them and make them better, and becoming more competitive from a product perspective, from a sales perspective and from an aftermarket perspective.”

Historically, manufacturers have thought of IT as control mechanisms for the OT world they live in every day; they make physical things in the physical world. However, it’s becoming more and more urgent that manufacturers understand the need to bring their physical processes into the digital world. While helpful, it’s not just about efficiency and improving shop output; understanding and implementing a digital factory mindset is quickly becoming essential for change management, growth and preparing for the future of manufacturing.

Visit PTC to learn more.