This article will discuss:
- Digital technology and what digitalization means
- The importance of digitalization within industrial facilities
- How digitalization can make realizing the gains of Industrie 4.0 possible
A few decades ago, an operator’s job included recording throughput and the amount of material used within the workstation while a supervisor walked from station to station monitoring the production process and taking notes. The operator’s manual records and the semi-informal notes from plant-floor supervisors were all the available data that decision makers had to work with when making tough decisions in complex manufacturing facilities. As expected, throughput was low and defects were plenty, while proper inventory management was a myth. The introduction of digital technology and the digitalization of the factory were to change all that.
What is digitalization?
The short definition of digitalization is the process of capturing data from data-producing sources and converting information into a digital format that can be processed by computers. This information can be physical work records, objects, visuals, and audio files that can be converted into digital representations that a computer can work with.
Digitalization is a crucial step to processing data of any form because it allows information from diverse sources to be integrated into a digital platform or environment where processing takes place. Digitized information also retains its quality when, regardless of how long it has been stored or shared, the data was created using a stable format. The durability of digitized data is one of the reasons why the digitalization of traditional industrial processes is expected to lead the move to Industrie 4.0.
Digitalization of the industrial sector
The application of digital technology, which consists of hardware and software solutions within the industrial sector, is currently supporting the digital transformation initiatives within the said sector. These digital technologies include data-capturing tools such as edge computing and IoT solutions, data transfer and storage tools which include industrial cloud platforms, and data-analytics tools such as simulation modeling and digital-twin solutions.
Visualization technologies are also a crucial aspect of the digital-transformation process. While the computer works with binary numbers and AI telemetry, analyzed information must be reproduced using a format that human operators understand. Visualization technologies such as web-based HMIs or smart devices can provide access to analyzed information through graphs and custom images.
As digital technology is crucial to applying digital transformation initiatives within the factory floor, so also is digital transformation crucial to the implementation of Industrie 4.0 business models. Thus, the end goal of every industrial digitalization process is to support Industrie 4.0 initiatives centered on interconnectivity and the inter-exchange of data.
Digitalization of the factory floor and Industrie 4.0
The ongoing Industrie 4.0 revolution which intends to automate traditional industrial processes through machine-to-machine, machine-to-cloud, and machine-to-human communication thrives on the ability to capture and process data from the factory floor. Industrie 4.0 is a data-driven process that replaces the use of the rule of thumb and tribal knowledge to determine what works within the factory floor. The first step to achieving Industrie 4.0 is digitalizing the factory floor with the intent of capturing data from even the most obscure area of the production cycle.
A digitally transformed factory creates an enabling environment for implementing Industrie 4.0 business models such as a data-driven plant optimization process or a predictive maintenance strategy. An example of how digitalization supports Industrie 4.0 can be demonstrated when determining the machine utilization rate. Digital technologies such as an edge device can be used to capture data from equipment. The captured data such as throughput, machine utilization time, and operator working hours can then be applied to calculating the overall equipment efficiency ratio of a machine.
Industrial automation also thrives on the inter-exchange of data from machine-to-machine and to a centralized automation platform. Digitalization solutions provide the tools required for diverse automation applications such as the use of IoT to monitor the large-scale deployment of equipment and support the transfer of data to and fro to automate industrial processes.
The importance of digitalization to the industrial sector
The digitalization of the traditional industrial facility leads to optimized processes and improved capacity planning. Digital technologies such as the digital twin and simulation scheduling software are excellent tools for evaluating the different planning scenarios before implementation. The digital twin thrives on real-time inter-exchange of data when actions on the factory floor are represented within the virtual environment. Thus, decision makers have the capacity to view and remotely monitor plant-floor activities.
Digitalization of the factory floor makes it possible to capture data and recreate complex operational processes in virtual form. The virtual representation of these processes is used as a training and validation tool to bring employees up to speed with new policies. Training and validation are also important Industrie 4.0 concepts and the digitalization of the factory floor makes integrating both processes possible.
Optimized industrial processes lead to high-performing service levels and increased customer satisfaction. The digitalization of the factory floor makes the above possible because it enables factory-floor managers to apply data-driven approaches when making decisions or evaluating new ideas.