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Smart Factory: Paperless Production for Your Company

“This story was originally published by OPC Router
and has been republished here with permission.”


Digitizing Processes: Four Examples on How to Add Extra Value to Your Mid-sized Company

The concept that powers Smart Factory designs is not only attractive for big enterprises. More and more mid-sized companies are implementing new technologies related to Industry 4.0 innovations that digitize processes in production. The main concern project planners raise is: Which areas need to be digitized to increase your company’s profitability?

As lined out in this article, four areas are especially interesting in view of their anticipated profitability. Implementing any of these, will add extra value to your company. The presented application scenarios show how ‘smart solutions’ are worth the effort. Innovation can be scaled to fit mid-sized companies. In every case: Digital interconnectivity makes your production paperless and smart.

OPC UA: Applying Reliable and well-tested Standards for Smart Factory Implementations

Mid-sized companies, wanting to digitize their processes both quickly and during regular operation have to rely on proven industry 4.0 standards, which is why OPC UA has come to be in high demand as communication protocol over the past years. The OPC UA protocol is in wide use today to interconnect systems, machines and industrial plants in various industrial sectors. The main advantage of this protocol is that it makes machine data inside the machine readable by enabling machine readability through the OPC UA protocol in order to transfer and describe data. Applied to real life in the production arena, this means that media gaps and other data communication obstacles between unlike systems can be solved in order to establish full connection between production plants and machines and their respective centralized management and control systems. Another advantage OPC UA brings to the table is that many devices have already been equipped with OPC UA interfaces or can easily be upgraded to make use of the OPC UA protocol – which makes connectivity relatively straightforward. Once connections are established, many processes benefit from added value – with automatic data streams, control mechanisms and monitoring solutions – resulting in improved production processes.

The four examples presented below show how mid-sized companies can add value to their production management by successfully implementing Smart Factory solutions via OPC UA.

Managing Product Variants: Smart Factory helps manage Small Lot Sizes in Manufacturing

Customized mass production relies on interconnected manufacturing machines to enable best possible management of product variant production with small lot or batch sizes. To make a factory smart, the machines need to have an OPC-ready server to connect the machine’s PLCs with the OPC server, for instance with the KEPServerEX. Putting this into place does not involve huge budgets, which makes this solution attractive for mid-sized companies (SMEs). Once the connection is established, the server brings data together in one place via an integrated OPC interface, which combines data and information to then feed the data into all required data channels providing centralized control. The data stacks that the server puts together can be transferred via a suitable middleware like the OPC Router that can pass on PLC signals to ERP systems and peripheral devices. On the other hand, the middleware can also send data from the ERP system to the PLCs or to other connected devices in the respective production setup. If a production line is connected in the above described manner, the ERP system can pass on orders directly to the production plant: Data concerning raw material, recipes, number of items or piece numbers as well as information regarding applicable tool sets and manufacturing configurations can be passed on to machines in production directly. Thus, automatized data transfer is implemented, which makes the whole production process more transparent and more flexible – and totally paperless. Furthermore, specific customer orders, which require different manufacturing settings can be carried out automatically as well because variants do not have to be newly programmed, whenever customized manufacturing takes place in the respective production plant.

Product Traceability during Production: Smart Factories are better informed

In various business sectors traceability of products at any given point in the production process is obligational due to legal requirements or specific market conditions that require fast intervention into manufacturing processes at all times. Raw materials must be of high quality and products need to be produced correctly. These requirements are necessary, which is why an interconnected manufacturing execution system (MES) is put in place in manufacturing enterprises to ensure that data can be read out at a very early stage directly at the machines. Data is read out and collected from sensors and signals of all machines in the production plant; and also documented. All data pertaining to every single lot can be passed on to a traceability database via the OPC Router. All processes involve digital data and information transfers – making your production smart and completely paperless. Traceability data can be archived in a dedicated traceability database to comply with a long-term data storage policy. All respective ingredients, raw materials, manufacturing processes and product specifications are saved in this manner, enabling full reconstruction of the entire supply and production chain at any given time in the future, which means reconstructing data about the infrastructure in production as well as the overall production processes that have taken place. Being able to do this puts the manufacturer in the position to quickly identify quality flaws in lots and to then call back certain product batches to remedy the flaws. Furthermore, it is possible to pinpoint where the flaw occurred and to hold the persons accountable, which could also be a supplier, for instance. Certain industry sectors like the food industry or the pharmaceutical sectors need very thorough control systems to ensure adequate quality control, which includes strict monitoring of merchandise management systems or ERP systems for the sake of quality assurance. Furthermore, traceability of lots needs to be possible at all times, which is why companies make use of interconnected database systems to ensure full documentation of tracing activities. Regardless of the size of your company: Any mid-sized company can implement full product and operations traceability with the help of the OPC Router.

Smart Factory Logistics: Optimizing shipping and dispatch Routines

Tailor-made packaging solutions and palletizing must rely on smart solutions that allow easy and efficient customization to ensure efficient processing of packaging and dispatch logistics. Even small to mid-sized companies need to be able to carry out customized order picking, packaging and shipping. Products are prepared in such a manner that they can be submitted to active pick locations – where they are available as ready-packed goods – and to put in place pick-and-place solutions for smart shipping and dispatch routines. When a product is ready for dispatch, an employee carries out an order execution, which prompts the interconnected ERP system to select the suitable transport vehicle for the respective transport order; and then the transport vehicle transports the product to the company’s packing station, employing solely automatic order picking or a combination of manual and automatic order-picking. While this is happening, the MES sends all necessary associated information to the packaging station to ensure that the product dispatch preparation can be carried out appropriately. Without any further interaction of coworkers, the automatic packaging plant takes care of customized packaging tasks. All data and information transfer is totally paperless, which is not only a smart idea because eliminating paper is a huge time-saver – but also helps your company become a smart factory. Often weighing machines are part of the packaging plant that is interconnected with the ERP system; thus ensuring that a weight report is transmitted to the ERP system. When the packaging process is complete, a load report is generated with a combination of data originating from all involved systems along the process chain; as well as customs papers. Mostly, companies use a warehouse management systems (WMS) that records all process steps from active order picking right through to the company’s shipping point that must be provided with accurate document generation for the shipping of goods. Thus, the freight forwarder or shipping partner – who picks up the goods at the company’s shipping point – is provided with all necessary information to ensure correct execution of the transport or shipping order; also including Advanced Shipping Notices (ASN) that provide advanced information to several shippers whenever several shipping companies are involved in the chain of shipping. For example, when the freight forwarder picks up the freight at the company’s shipping point, he can immediately carry out the shipping order and fulfill the order completely, or pass on the freight to the next shipper involved in freight forwarding of the respective goods. No further inquiries are necessary.

Maintenance Management: Industry 4.0-ready Predictive Maintenance in Smart Factory Environments

In an industry 4.0-ready production plant, production data – along with operational and machine data – can be transferred to MES and ERP systems, which also empowers companies to engage in smart maintenance management processes along with predictive maintenance measures. With smart machine maintenance in place, maintenance can be executed in a highly digitally interconnected manner, which is supported by intelligent software systems. While smart maintenance management solutions were formally only affordable for big corporations, they can now be easily implemented by mid-sized or small companies. Instead of being limited to spot-testing of the machine at certain predefined intervals – based on empirical data – the actual wear and tear of any machine and all involved machine tools can be determined because interconnected systems provide the necessary data with near real-time or partly real-time data availability. Needs-oriented maintenance makes performance-focused maintenance procedures possible. Maintenance staff can now take action when a real maintenance need occurs. Maintenance personnel does not have to waste time for supposed maintenance needs based on empirical data that can only convey statistical needs but cannot convey actual maintenance needs. Furthermore, the maintenance worker is provided with detailed and complete information in order to carry out maintenance and repair works correctly and fully. Machine stoppages or downtimes can be reduced considerably when smart maintenance management routines are applied that include predictive maintenance strategies. Furthermore, error sources can be eliminated much more comfortable because errors can be pinpointed more easily. Thus, malfunctions and plant failures can be much better avoided in a smart factory. Paperless maintenance management is smart. When your maintenance management is fully digitally interconnected and also aided by appropriate software systems it can transform your company into a smart factory.

Company Size is not crucial: Smart Factory Implementation is possible for everyone

No matter how big or small your company is: The OPC UA protocol can be implemented to transform your production into a smart factory environment. Paperless production is much more than getting rid of paper-based documentation. It’s smart and integrated management of production processes. Industrial software is available to make it happen for your specific company in a cost-efficient and affordable manner. Many mid-sized companies haven taken the plunge into the Industry 4.0 era by implementing interconnected OPC UA-based communication networks, with remarkable double-digit productivity increases, as shown in a fairly recent study (2016) available at researchgate. In order to transform any small or mid-sized company into a smart factory, it is necessary to provide the needed interfaces both for production and management systems. Once the main communication network has been determined and implemented, optimizations can be carried out successively. In the end, the main focus needs to be to improve production output and quality or to lower production costs – because that’s the smart value of a smart factory environment.

More information about Smart Factory solutions are provided at:

Detailed information about the industry standard OPC UA and the OPC Router are available at:

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