Strategic advice for investing in data analytics, the cloud, and the Internet of Things (IoT), and how a holistic strategy can even improve your PLC programming
What is digital manufacturing, and how can manufacturers implement the technology to meet their objectives? During a recent engineering forum discussion, Jeff Hall, a Siemens global account manager, defined digital manufacturing as follows: “It is using new technologies such as data analytics, the cloud, and the Internet of Things (IoT) to merge the virtual and real worlds. It enables manufacturers to increase productivity across their entire value chain, from design and engineering to sales, production, and service. In concrete terms, this means faster time-to-market, greater flexibility, and enhanced availability of systems on the plant floor.”
Imagine these scenarios:
- A technician from a system integrator sits on an overturned bucket next to an open controller cabinet with a laptop balanced on his knees. He’s been sitting there sweating for the last six hours trying to fix programming problems on an assembly line that his company built. He’ll be there again tomorrow and maybe the day after to solve the issue, costing his company valuable time and money.
- A plant manager just finished a project to rearrange a production line in his plant in an effort to create more manufacturing flexibility. On paper the floor plan looked good, but it was all done from old, two-dimensional specifications. In the real-world application, some of the machinery doesn’t fit together very well.
Digital manufacturing offers solutions that can mitigate or even eliminate these types of concerns—and many others. For manufacturers, it means the ability to perform a wide variety of manufacturing operations, from product design through production, including production equipment design, programming, and plant layouts. With a digital manufacturing strategy, engineers can perform a wide variety of tasks, from virtual prototyping to machine design and PLC programming on a workstation, with much of the tedious work automated.
Digital Manufacturing in the Real World
Those involved in different manufacturing positions and sectors are likely to emphasize specific areas of digital manufacturing based on their experience and specific job responsibilities. While digital manufacturing includes a range of technologies that have been evolving during the last 20 to 30 years, each individual begins with a different starting point. For the most part, all the capabilities contained under this umbrella developed in silos. Only recently have manufacturers realized the benefits of connecting and integrating the various parts.
A consensus is emerging within manufacturing that supports Hall’s idea: digital manufacturing means a series of processes capable of encompassing the entire manufacturing lifecycle, from the earliest product design work (using virtual modeling, prototyping and simulation) to automated manufacturing and assembly, and beyond to field service.
All aspects of the process are connected and taken into consideration at each stage. For example, those involved in service can have input into the product’s initial design to ensure that repairs in the field are not hampered by the configuration. In fact, the digital manufacturing concept can extend to designing the manufacturing process and facility itself. Even controller programming can be built and simulated in a virtual environment. The product is designed for manufacturing efficiency in a given facility, and placement of the machinery in a plant can be analyzed using computer modeling.
One aspect of the discussion that came heavily from the system integrator community related to writing programs for controllers and PLCs driving manufacturing machinery. To them, the ability to simulate how a new piece of equipment will perform when installed at the customer’s site is a huge advantage. Creating the models necessary to perform such a simulation can be time consuming and load more cost into the early stages of a project, but the savings at the back end can be huge.
The first scenario above was described by an integrator. He talked of many hours spent in customers’ facilities sitting on a bucket, laptop on his knees, connected to a PLC that his company had programmed, trying to sort through problems with the ladder logic. He shared how much better it was to write programs in the comfort of his office, sleeping in his own bed at night, rather than being sent to the field to fix things. By and large, his experience is not unique, as it is getting increasingly difficult to get young engineers to spend days or weeks at a time in the field. Digital manufacturing provides opportunities to run that machine while it’s still on the computer screen, making sure all the code works as expected. Virtual commissioning has become far more practical, rapidly lessening the number of changes that must be performed on site, and reducing the time to startup.
Of course, accurate simulations require reliable data and analysis; the ability to do good simulations is directly related to the ability to generate good models.
Recall the second scenario above, where a company struggled with creating a virtual plant layout because designers only had two-dimensional information on the equipment involved. While the advantages of exploring a variety of layout iterations on a screen rather than trying to move conveyors and robots is apparent, it’s clear that accuracy of the models is paramount.
The Function of Data in Legacy Integration
For most manufacturers, interfacing with legacy equipment is a major concern.
New machines may use all the advantages of digital design and simulation, but they have to work in an environment where the next manufacturing section upstream or downstream may be 20 years old and was designed using traditional, two-dimensional techniques. Digital manufacturing integrates legacy systems with advanced technologies by using the available data, and extending the new capabilities to the older equipment.
The solution begins by looking at the available data, comparing it with the data that is available, and then delivering the data. As long as the data flow is seamless, the rest is easy to resolve. Also, programming code from older machines can be brought into a simulator and connected virtually to the new machinery. Such an approach makes integration far easier.
But using data for machine-to-machine integration is only part of the picture.
Process improvements depend on having data to indicate how things are working and to identify weaknesses and bottlenecks. The number of connections between machinery on the plant floor and enterprise-level networks is also growing, which increases the need for connectivity using IT techniques. This is far easier with the current generation of controllers. In addition, manufacturing management wants cost information, and the demands for more granular data are increasing dramatically.
Making the Case for Investment
Making the case to invest in digital manufacturing is a universal challenge. Finance people in large manufacturing companies can be hard to convince when it comes to implementing new technologies. These decision makers expect a proven track record before approving purchases. Since digital manufacturing is new for so many companies, it is difficult to show where and how the technology has saved money in ways the company will find compelling.
Yet most engaged in the discussion agreed that this situation is changing: the advantages of digital manufacturing are beginning to filter through to even the most hard-nosed financial managers. The potential for significant savings, even without many years of cost history, makes for a compelling argument.
One of the participants (from one of the “Big Three” automotive manufacturers) described making the case for investment in digital manufacturing as “building on a three-legged stool.” The first leg is cost reduction and cost avoidance, the second is product quality improvement, and the third is flexibility.
Multiple product platforms are being built on the same production lines to keep up with customer demand, and digital manufacturing is a key driver of that flexibility. Changes can be made quickly and with minimal disruption because all aspects of the process, from design to customer service, are connected and integrated. When a component is redesigned and prototyped virtually, it can be produced and moved into the larger assembly seamlessly. All documentation can be updated automatically and related manufacturing operations, even down to specific PLC programming, can be adjusted to make the implementation essentially invisible.
Closing the Loop
The head of a system integration company offered a good summary of digital manufacturing’s capabilities: it provides data able to support improvements as a closed-loop system. Every time there is an advance in one area, it can loop back to the beginning of the process and launch the next improvement. When products can be designed, prototyped, and tested virtually, the possibilities are endless. When manufacturing processes are changed on a screen, new approaches can be tested and verified without disrupting any existing production. These changes can be documented automatically, eliminating traditional steps.
John Billings, vice president of Siemens Digital Factory U.S., has a similar view: “The hallmark of advanced manufacturing is taking a holistic approach from product design through the rest of the phases of the manufacturing process. This is how we’ll get to a point of autonomous, self-correcting production processes. The linchpin of this approach is the data. Globally, you can make better decisions because you’re no longer guessing about what’s going on in your operations.”
Such improvements are being realized today in an expanding range of manufacturing sectors.Have an Inquiry for Siemens about this article? Click Here >>