The digital factory: a virtualization of general manufacturing practices

December 6, 2016 - 5 minutes read
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Over the last few hundred years or so, there has been a tremendous amount of innovation in manufacturing techniques. From the introduction of Henry Ford’s T-model assembly line, to the application of mass production techniques, to the era of computers and robotic analytics, mankind has experienced an unprecedented growth in its ability to incorporate advanced manufacturing techniques into its production capabilities.

So what’s the next big leap then?

We are currently in an era largely defined as “Industry 4.0,” one that can be characterized by the use of computers, automation, and robotic techniques in highly innovative, digital factories[1]. While digital factories and their technology have been in existence for a few decades, the scalability of their application has only recently begun to show. This is largely due to a general desire of manufacturing leaders to lower their costs and leverage an asset of tremendous value: large databases of stored information that their production facilities have accumulated over time. This data can be applied in a multitude of ways, from supply chain management to demand forecasting to inventory reduction. Therefore, information transparency can be seen as a central component to the digital factory.

With the proper data infrastructure and systems set in place, digital factories can thrive off the advanced analytics produced as a result of daily operations. Workplaces as a result of the digitalization of assets will become safer and more efficient, eventually leading to a reduction in human error[2]. Simple applications of technologies such as RFID barcoding scanning, along with the interconnectivity that and inventory tracking systems, will allow manufacturers to better manage inventory, supply chain processes, and general operations. This general theme of interconnectivity between machines and humans is one of the critical components of Industry 4.0.

So what about human error? It was mentioned previously that an important result in automation and robotics usage is the reduction of human error. But will machines make it to a point where human error of all types are simply a relic of the past? We think it is far too early to decide, but do recognize that the assistance machines can provide humans on a technical level will bring forth many positives in the future. Technical support systems help humans to forecast demand, problem-solve complex issues, and assist with tasks we simply are not capable of. These additional capabilities make technical support a necessity for digital factories to have.

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With these components of the larger model of the digital factory in mind, let’s look at an applicable, real-world example of how Industry 4.0 has improved the processes of clothing manufacturer Zara. Renown fashion retailer Zara is known for its speedy delivery of affordable, trendy clothing to its large customer base worldwide. Through the use of digital factory applications, Zara is able respond to changing consumer preferences faster than ever. Through the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) for their clothing items, Zara has been able to significantly reduce supply-chain costs without affecting its speedy delivery. The retailer expects to transition into a fully-wireless inventory system by the end of 2016 due to the lowered cost of hardware and software associated with implementing an RFID-based inventory system[3].

Forward Outlook

The use of tracking devices can be utilized as an indicator for manufacturers to inform customers about their WIP orders. Courier services such as FedEx and UPS already use RFID as a way to inform customers about the location of their packages. Similarly, imagine if an airline is able to receive real-time status updates on their new orders of airplane parts directly from the production equipment itself. This would lead to huge savings in time and resources as customers can avoid lengthy interactions with support teams who typically navigate through multiple channels before arriving with a proper estimate of delivery. We foresee a generation of manufacturers who will use virtualization techniques within their daily operations to increase their workplace efficiency and ultimately serve their consumers in an improved manner.

By Adit Babureddy, Consultant Tefen USA

[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2016/06/20/what-everyone-must-know-about-industry-4-0/#3bb0690e4e3b

[2] http://cerasis.com/2015/12/07/6-manufacturing-trends-to-watch-out-for-in-2016/

[3] http://www.wsj.com/articles/at-zara-fast-fashion-meets-smarter-inventory-1410884519

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