Industry 4.0 in the ventilation industry. How do smart factories connect people, machines and virtual reality?

Piotr Woźniak
Piotr Woźniak

Head of the Production Engineering Department in the company SMAY Sp. z o.o.

By now, everyone working in the industry should be familiar with the term Industry 4.0. Many, however, mistakenly associate it mostly or exclusively with industrial robotisation, i.e. eliminating people from production processes. So far, the world has gone through three phases of industrial revolution:

• mechanization,
• electrification,
• digitalisation.

Industry 4.0 is best described as integration of web systems and networks with physical production based on smart and digital technologies, machine learning and large quantities of data acquired in real time, which can consecutively be analysed. Combining these elements allows us to create one integrated ecosystem, i.e. a smart factory.

The term Industry 4.0 was first used in the 2011 high-tech strategy of the German government, which promoted manufacturing process computerization.

Digital transformation within production processes contributes to global economic growth and enriches societies.

It is often said that Industry 4.0 – along with industrial revolution – is merely a catchphrase used for marketing while businesses supporting its implementation within factories make a fortune selling computer systems that monitor and manage resources. Reportedly, the costs are through the roof while the returns remain unrealistic. There is some truth to all of that. Creating a network spanning all machines, workstations and computer stations, as well as collecting hundreds or even thousands of unnecessary or misinterpreted pieces of data does not guarantee measurable benefits. Excessive automation is also easy to overestimate. When new technologies are introduced, there are always people claiming that the old ways were better. Some also claim that we simply lack the knowledge and skills to properly interpret and make use of the collected information. Every organisation’s approach to implementing Industry 4.0 principles within its structures should therefore be well thought-out at the planning stage.

How to create a smart factory?

Considering all of the above, SMAY decided to make reasonable and calculated investments in those corporate processes where automation, autonomation and digitalisation can bring measurable and quickly noticeable benefits, such as increased productivity and quality or decreased production costs.

How does SMAY connect systems, networks and machines?

In 2011 – three years after expanding our sheet processing machinery park – the company implemented a system that automated the way we generate workpiece cut-outs ordered by our clients.

The investment was based on the company’s production profile (i.e. customer-focused production). 90% of SMAY’s production are individual, often small-series orders. The number and series of types of our products prove that the decision was correct.
SMAY currently offers more than 400 multi-variant, finished products and manufactures over 1,000 semi-finished products for its internal purposes.
As a result of our efforts, we have created a digital bridge connecting our B2B platform by means of an ERP sales module with a production module, software in charge of generating workpiece cut-outs for cutting machines and the machinery park itself. Connecting those systems minimizes the role of people in the process and limits the number of potential errors. Most of all, it allows us to automate workpiece cut-out generation. Clients using the B2B platform are the first link that trigger this process.

By using scripts that define workpiece geometry they are made “on the fly”. Their shapes, material types and thickness are selected automatically based on the characteristics of goods ordered by the client. Machines thus receive a set of programmes with workpieces to be processed.
But that is not all of it. Making workpieces with cutting machines is only the first step of the production process pyramid. In this very aspect, SMAY turned to the smart factory concept.

We began implementing a factory work management system almost two years ago. The system go-live is planned for 2020. It will manage all production and logistics processes within production floor. The main feature that differentiates this solution from other standard planning systems are uninterrupted and automated production plan updates, and autonomous decision-making capabilities. The production plan will be executed based on the actual situation and reports obtained directly from assembly. The “brains” of the entire operation is an algorithm that second by second analyses all available data, that is: human, machine, workstation and material resources, estimated manufacturing time and delivery date. It will manage it without the support of planners or direct supervisors.

A large data matrix is being created for the purposes of the system. It will include comprehensive information regarding product structures, their possible shop-floor flow and all information on SMAY’s resources.

Production management system. Investment and performance

What will we ultimately gain? Only works that are the most important, necessary and feasible at a given moment will be ordered. The system will decide on the order of works on its own. It will analyse in real time all the factors in the shop floor – not only those that reach the supervision and production planning departments in their standard form.

Currently, SMAY has 3 production floors, 10 production departments, almost 100 workstations, 200 machines and devices, 250 employees in charge of production and logistics, as well as dozens of orders coming in to the shop every day. Reliable analysis of such a large amount of information would not be possible without the support of IT tools. The production management system will ensure the most efficient use of available resources. Feedback from the production floor will be sent to the system through computer terminals located around the floor, barcode scanners and reports submitted by users.

Implementing the management system will also significantly improve working conditions in the shop. All employees coming to work will collect their tasks. After finishing one task they will receive another one, etc. More importantly, these will be the tasks they are qualified for. They will be provided with space and means to complete them as all the components will already be delivered to workstations or designated collection points. Orders will never be sent to machines or stations that are in use. It will positively impact production process harmonisation and eliminate stress factors that employees are exposed to when they don’t have the means to execute necessary work.

It will also significantly improve in-house logistics. It is universally acknowledged that nowadays information is the most valuable commodity. SMAY sees well-organised logistics as a process information carrier. Everyone who has experienced lost workpieces or components required to finish an order will agree with this statement. A flood of actions launched in order to find missing pieces or establish where they are often requires dozens of phone calls made by people who could otherwise focus on their tasks. Managing logistics processes will ensure in-depth knowledge regarding location of workpieces at every production stage. Furthermore, it will allow us to deliberately, yet autonomously, send pieces where they will be needed at the following stage.

How to extend production management autonomy to processing centres?

The factory management system’s implementation consists of two stages.

THE FIRST STAGE (planned for 2020) includes implementing autonomous human resources, manufacturing cells, material and internal production logistics management. The system will be connected to the ERP, WMS and – to a lesser extent – machining centre management systems.

THE SECOND STAGE (planned for 2021/2022) consists in expanding production management autonomy to sheet machining centres connected to the automated raw material warehouse. This objective sounds slightly vague. We do not only want to be able to submit requests for materials and then wait for them. We want to plan when they are collected, so that the equipment has the time to prepare them. All of this will be accompanied by dynamic situation analyses within factory and limited equipment productivity.

Between 2024–2026 SMAY intends to autonomise a warehouse and logistics process management. This will include warehousing, transporting and picking finished goods for shipment or raw materials for manufacturing cells. The implemented factory management system will provide a basis for those activities. It will include high storage warehouse management capabilities for finished goods and autonomous automated guided vehicles (AGV).
The smart factory concept makes it possible to connect production machinery and humans to virtual reality. People, machines and IT systems automatically exchange information during production both within a factory and IT systems used in an organization.

SMAY does not however neglect the most important factor, i.e. the people for whom all these solutions are created. In principle, automation and digitalisation are supposed to facilitate people’s work, not to exclude them from production processes.

Only four steps to a complete system integration

Industry 4.0 is not only a country-wide initiative. Its character is by all means global and thus requires international preparation. The current industrial revolution results in high flexibility between production processes and their low costs. By connecting real world, technology, data management systems and multiple system integration, we can improve and optimize production processes in a way that makes factories more competitive while individualizing products focused on customers. Industry 4.0 involves exchanging large quantities of information among machines, the entire IT system and people who are involved in the computerization of production processes, i.e. create a long value chain.

Yet, as the name itself indicates, it is not the first industrial revolution that we face. Long before the real and virtual worlds were connected, we experienced a revolution involving mechanization, that is steam engines and mechanical instruments. The second revolution – referred to as Industry 2.0 – resulted in first production lines, while the third introduced digitalisation. This is when we were exposed to IT systems used for production planning and control, powerful computers and automation.

In retrospect, we can clearly see how far we have come. But above all, Industry 4.0 consists in integrating numerous systems and creating networks. Networks comprised of autonomous robots, system integration, Big Data management, augmented reality, cloud computing or even the Internet of Things and cybersecurity. The last concept needs to be specifically looked into.

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