Thomas SÃ¶llner - stock.adobe.co
At Schneider Electric’s smart factory in Batam, Indonesia, scores of sensors are being used to transmit data about the health of manufacturing equipment to plant operators, who can then replace worn-out parts before they break down.
After all, like any manufacturing facility, equipment downtime can have a detrimental effect on operations, even resulting in wastage of raw materials.
Noting that its foray into smart manufacturing has been encouraging, Schneider Electric’s cluster vice-president for industrial automation, Urvil Modi, revealed that the French energy management and automation firm has reduced material wastage by 47% – just for a single machine that makes electrical distribution products.
Worker productivity has improved by about 17% as well, thanks to the use of virtual reality goggles that take maintenance workers through the process of fixing faulty machinery, as well as real-time reporting on plant operations that relieves managers of the need to prepare weekly reports.
Schneider Electric’s Batam plant is one of six such facilities it has set up worldwide to test the use of smart manufacturing technologies in what is known as Industry 4.0, the cyber-physical transformation of manufacturing.
The term was inspired by Germany’s Industrie 4.0, a government initiative to promote connected manufacturing and a digital convergence between industry, businesses and other processes.
But for Industry 4.0 to realise its full potential, all parties across a manufacturing supply chain have to jump on the bandwagon, including suppliers, logistics partners and even customers.
Realising this, Schneider Electric has developed a platform for its suppliers to use so it can monitor anomalies in manufacturing processes at supplier plants.
“We can now work collaboratively with suppliers to see what can be tweaked or fixed,” said Modi, adding that supplier components also come with QR (quick response) codes, so Schneider Electric can trace and track materials across its supply chain.
Modi emphasised, though, that having greater visibility over its supply chain was not about exerting control over suppliers. Rather, it was about keeping suppliers updated on variations in the production cycle. “And if something goes wrong, there’s real-time support from us.”
On the customer front, Modi said QR codes have also been slapped on Schneider Electric’s own products, so product issues flagged by customers can be traced to specific orders and even the supplier machines that made those products.
Not about manpower savings
By setting up a smart factory in Batam – which has lower labour costs than neighbouring Singapore – Schneider Electric has dispelled the perception that Industry 4.0 is a way for manufacturers to cut manpower costs.
Noting that the previous round of industrial transformation was marked by automation, replacing manual labour with automated processes and reducing manpower requirements as a result, Modi said Industry 4.0 does not tinker with manpower usage.
Urvil Modi, Schneider Electric
“It makes things smarter, more real time and squeezes out more productivity from the time lost between capturing and making sense of data,” he said. “It’s not so much about labour costs as it is about intelligent decision-making.”
Asked if decisions on the factory floor could be made by algorithms in the future, once artificial intelligence comes of age, Modi said it was a space that he is watching closely.
“But as of now, algorithmic decision-making in manufacturing is in the primitive stages, potentially applied in making low-stakes decisions where the implications are not serious,” he said, adding that there is also the question of who should take responsibility should things go awry.
Apart from Batam, Schneider Electric also operates similar smart manufacturing facilities in three other emerging countries, North America and Le Vaudreuil in France.
In September 2018, at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, China, the Le Vaudreuil factory was named as one of world’s top nine advanced “lighthouse” factories that embed smart manufacturing technologies.
Read more about Industry 4.0 in APAC
- HP has teamed up with Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University to set up a research lab aimed at advancing digital manufacturing technologies.
- Southeast Asian countries are generally optimistic about the use of emerging technologies, such as advanced analytics in manufacturing industries, but the positive sentiment has not led to action.
- Nearly half of APAC manufacturers expect to support a fully connected factory by 2022, nearly triple what it is today, according to a study by Zebra Technologies.
- The industrialised economies in Asia are well-poised to benefit from advanced manufacturing and emerging technologies, but true industrial transformation remains nascent.