How to create your digital connected factory

October 21, 2022


Create your digital connected factory

Have you ever upgraded your phone, only to realise this upgraded model now uses a different type of USB to charge it? Then you have two choices. You can either buy a new charging cable or an adapter to link your old cable with the new phone. Similar situations occur in your factory all the time with software, systems and technology that are not compatible and leave you with a decision to make. While this may not seem like a priority, getting it wrong can be the source of a host of issues in your factory. Meanwhile getting it right sets your factory on the path to uninterrupted automation. So, today we’re going to explore how to create your digital connected factory. 

The need to connect systems

Last week, we introduced how to streamline your manufacturing operations as the first step of our Streamline, Connect, Analyse, Level-up and Extend (SCALE) framework. Having robust processes provides the digital foundations of your factory. Then, the next step is to connect those systems with other parts of your factory to drive efficiencies further and build your smart factory infrastructure.

If we return to my introduction about the phone, the obvious solution is to buy a different cable. However, it’s a lot less clear in your business. In general, there are two approaches to adopting technology:

  1. Best in class systems for each component
  2. An all-in-one system that covers everything

While both of these options have their merits, unfortunately, both leave gaps in your operations. Looking for best-in-class systems when streamlining operations is great, but these systems often do not integrate with one another (similar to the phone situation). This adds inefficiencies back into your process as you have to use manual techniques to move information between them, leaving you looking at how to connect them.

An all-in-one system can collate different departments and bring lots of information together. But, because these systems offer such broad capabilities, they often neglect niche processes relevant to your industry. And this leaves gaps in the processes you digitalise – which you will likely use spreadsheets to fill. However, you cannot connect spreadsheets with your ERP system. So, you’re in the same situation of looking to find a way to connect your ERP with spreadsheets. Alternatively, you need to replace one or both of them with an alternative system that is integrated.

The benefits of your connected factory

So, as you can imagine, connecting your factory can potentially become quite expensive – especially if you consider this across all parts of your factory. However, the benefits far outweigh the costs when taking the initiative to connect your whole factory.

The benefits of digitally connecting your processes are streamlined production time, reduced errors, increased capacity and improved traceability
The benefits of digitally connecting your processes are streamlined production time, reduced errors, increased capacity and improved traceability

1.     Increase capacity & remove bottlenecks

As mentioned above, while digitalising individual systems can dramatically increase efficiencies, you begin to create bottlenecks between the processes. Any time that manual intervention is required, the process will slow down. By connecting the disparate systems, you can resolve those bottlenecks, which can lead to increased capacity.

2.     Improved data accuracy

When you connect disparate systems automatically, you minimise the opportunity for mistakes. For example, if you use a CAD machine, the part you’re designing will have a serial number. But if you have to manually enter that into your ERP system to go into production, then there is an opportunity to mistype the number. Therefore, mismatched serial numbers for the same part would completely undermine your traceability, as it would essentially create a new part in your system. However, if systems talk to each other automatically, then the ERP could select parts built in the CAD and ensure you have the right parts. And this is just one example.

Having accurate data also gives you the ability to analyse it and use it to make decisions. If you’re making decisions based on inaccurate data, those decisions will be misguided.

3.     Accurate traceability & visibility

Connecting systems gives you data on every aspect of your business, and you can see how different departments impact each other. For example, if you were using spreadsheets or paper-based systems to record non-conformances, how would you relate them to the production data in your ERP? How could you identify the root cause of any problem if you only have half the picture?

Connectivity is also essential when tracing parts through production as it will automatically capture the audit trail at every stage. Additionally, as you move into the analyse section in the next stage, you will begin to see how the streamline and connect steps allows you to grow and improve.

4.     Track asset and product locations

Capturing data from your products using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) lets you track where assets and products are at any given time. Integrating these tags on a production line could enable you to trigger machines to take action when products are at a given location. Not only this but, by integrating with your ERP system, you can track asset or product locations. So, you can locate missing assets or query why products have not moved in a few hours.

An example in action

Let’s consider how you plan and manufacture parts in your business. First, you may use an ERP system to raise quotes, log supplier details, and create BOMs and works orders. Then you could use a scheduler to plan the jobs against available resources dynamically. And you can manufacture parts on the CNC machine. So this is great. It’s a very digital and streamlined method of doing each of these tasks.

But, how do you tell the scheduler which jobs to plan? That information is in your ERP system, so do you need to input that manually? Or maybe export it to excel and then import it into your scheduler.

Additionally, how do you communicate which jobs people should work from the schedule? Do you print out the schedule for everyone to see? What happens if there is a slight delay? Or a machine fault? How do you learn about that information? Do you go back and create a new schedule?

This example is common where each process is streamlined, but they’re not connected. And this introduces inefficiencies back into the process along with data inaccuracies.

How technology can connect your factory

So what can you do in this situation? 

A great first option is to get a Shop Floor Data Collection (SFDC) system that links with your scheduler and ERP system. An SFDC will allow your shop floor engineers to digitally record their activities, whether that’s clocking on or off jobs, logging when new orders are received, or performing machine maintenance checks.

Overall, an SFDC gives you live tracking of your shop floor activities. Then, if there is a problem, your shop floor team go to the tablet and log in to say “the machine is broken, let’s get someone to fix it.”

The SFDC then alerts the production manager of the issue and for him to adjust the schedule. Or in some cases, the scheduler will automatically adjust the schedule based on this information from the SFDC combined with delivery targets and available resources. Then the production manager can approve it.

However, even with SFDC, there is still a gap between the machine breaking down and the employee logging the fault. What if the employee isn’t right there with the machine the whole time? Or there’s a queue to the SFDC which delays the engineer from logging the issue? Will this delay impact the overall delivery time?

To be fully connected, you need the machine to alert the relevant people or systems directly. At this point, you have a choice between replacing your existing machine with a new “smart” machine with built-in sensors or upgrading your current machine by attaching sensors that can give you basic information and readings.

Connecting the 5Ps of your factory

Of course, this is just one example. At Fitfactory, we believe that connecting your whole factory can improve productivity. And we break this down into the 5 Ps of Connectivity: People, Plant, Processes, Products, and Partners.

Connect Your People, Plant, Processes, Products and Partners with Fitfactory
Connect Your People, Plant, Processes, Products and Partners

Here is how we break down these sources:

1.     People

Data from people is anything that requires human input to capture. Of course, this will differ in each factory based on what you have digitalised already, but typically you could say this is everything you capture with spreadsheets.

Some companies will use spreadsheets for most things, including scheduling, while others might just use them for checklists, but most will be somewhere in between. Regardless, the key here is to consider if you use this information for another activity. If you are, then you should capture it digitally so that you can automate it.  

For example, if you need to clean a machine before each use, you may have a checklist for the cleaning method. Of course, you could use a spreadsheet for this. But consider the alternative: Your engineer completes the check on a digital system, and then the system notifies your ERP that “the check is complete”. Thus, you would have a full audit trail of all acitivites in the check. Additionally, you could have a gated process that ensures production doesn’t begin until you complete the clean. Overall, the digital version gives you greater control and ensures that your team follows the correct process.

2.     Plant

Your machines are central to your business, and in some cases, they are the heartbeat of your operations. However, if you manually take notes from screen readings or stick post-its with handy tips for others, then the only good news is that there are lots of opportunities to improve!

You can utilise plant information from machines, including start & stop times, turn speed, temperature, remaining run time – pretty much anything you need to monitor. If you use additive manufacturing machines, the information you need to monitor will be vastly different from CNC machines.

Indeed, some newer machines have sensors built in that can take readings for you and may even integrate with other systems. Therefore, you should consider the connectivity of new devices when making a purchase.

That said, you can buy sensors that will bolt onto your existing machines and allow you to capture machine data without needing to replace all your assets. These sensors range from proximity sensors to ensure people maintain a safe distance, vibration sensors to detect when the machine is on or off, and a range of other applications.

3.     Processes

Digital processes include ERP, MRP, Project Management, Quality management and pretty much any system or workflow you utilise in your business.

As discussed in our Streamline blog, these systems hold a plethora of data, so they must integrate with external systems to realise your connected factory.

In some cases, your ERP can even be a bridge to connect two different systems. For example, you may not need to directly link a machine with your scheduler if both have 2-way communication with your ERP. Admittedly, it’s not the most efficient, but it can be cost-effective if this is your only option.

4.     Products

Product data includes the use of RFID tags, which can provide location status and trigger connected devices to take specific actions.

Also, product data includes product quality, rejects, non-conformances, and calibration information, and it all builds insights into your product performance. By capturing product data and connecting it with people, process, plant or partner data, you can quickly identify the root cause of issues. For example, was this non-conformance due to a human error? or was it due to a machine fault?  

Identifying these by monitoring product data can also trigger actions such as creating a non-conformance report for yourself or your supplier to investigate.

5.     Partners

Finally, gathering information from partners can help to tie everything together. Partner data includes data from your customers regarding specifications, order forecasting, changes to the order, or audits. Utilising all of this information can help ensure that you have capacity available, with parts in stock, to ensure you have the capacity to deliver the work on time when it comes in. By connecting this information with your ERP, Scheduling and SFDC systems, you can ensure that information can go directly from customers to the people that need to know, rather than communicating via emails.

Additionally, you can tie in your supplier data to gain greater part traceability, minimise costs and reduce non-conformances. For example, you can incorporate supplier quality metrics into checks when parts arrive, so you can establish the root cause and resolve issues more quickly. You can also utilise suppliers’ quality, cost, and delivery performance to identify which suppliers you can collaborate with to drive improvements.

How to create your digital connected factory?

So, by illustrating the 5Ps, you can see there are endless opportunities to capture data and link it together to realise significant productivity improvements. Therefore, the question is not if you should do it, but howwhen and where to start?

At Fitfactory, we advocate for having a clear digital strategy that considers how technology can help you achieve your strategic goals. This article may have inspired you to connect different systems, but the first step on our SCALE journey is to Streamline operations. Streamlining core processes will provide the most significant improvements and give you the foundations to build on.

If you have streamlined your operations, then it’s critical to consider your broader strategy still. For example, if you have made some efficiency improvements but are looking for more, start by identifying gaps, address the root cause, and find the right solution.

Indeed, some of our customers have undertaken a complete systems diagnostic to identify the gaps between their systems. This helped them see where they could link tools together and mitigate the need for some systems entirely.

However, it may be that you need more information to make the next decision. Try to figure out which data you need in order to make that decision and look for options to help you capture it.

Connect the 5Ps with Fitfactory

At Fitfactory, we work with companies to understand their goals and identify the right solutions for what they need. Our modularised end-to-end digital transformation solution enables you to Streamline, Connect, Analyse, Level-up, and Extend (SCALE) your business. This model gives you the flexibility to take what you need when they need it and know that we can support future growth.

Additionally, we place an emphasis on connectivity and ensure that all our systems are integrated. We provide tools to bridge gaps between systems and capture data across people, plant, process, products and partners in your factory. With flexible tools to capture data from people, you can replace spreadsheets with robust tools that integrate with your ERP and scheduling packages. Meanwhile, our asset manager and machine monitoring tools can provide comprehensive traceability of parts and the insights to increase OEE.

Fitfactory are the leading software provider implementing the UK’s first private 5G network in an SME with AE Aerospace. As Ian Bouquet-Taylor, Operation Director at AE Aerospace recently explained, “AE Aerospace is working towards its vision of creating a “Glass Factory” where schedule, progress and available capacity data are available to customers at the touch of a button.  To achieve this servitised model, we have partnered with Fitfactory to connect our organisation together intricately.  Now, everyone can see our plan, achievement and issues and act on them accordingly. This has seen an uplift in OEE, taking us from 28% to 35% within the first few months, and it is laying the foundations to offer something truly different to our customers and move us yet further to being the world-class company we know we can be.”

With over 25 years of experience implementing digital technology, Fitfactory has supported more than 400 manufacturing, engineering, and treatment companies to improve their digital productivity.

For help connecting the 5Ps of your business, or with any of your digital projects, message us.

Learn more about SCALE

You can learn more about SCALE by subscribing to our blog. We provide weekly updates to support your digital transformation journey, including interviews with our in-house experts, highlights of funding opportunities, and blogs like this one. Last week, we introduced Streamline, and next week we will look ahead to Analyse, Level-up and Extend.

Alternatively, follow us on LinkedIn.

Copyright © 2023 Fitfactory Technology Ltd.