What Is the Concept of a Virtual Factory?
For a decade, the first Friday in October has been designated as National Manufacturing Day. This day begins a month-long events schedule at manufacturing companies nationwide to attract talent to modern manufacturing careers.
For some period, manufacturing went out of fashion. Young tech talents preferred software and financial services career opportunities. This preference has changed in recent years. The advent of digital technologies and robotization brought some glamour back.
The connected factory is democratizing another innovation — the virtual factory. Without critical asset connection at the IoT edge, the virtual factory couldn’t have been realized by anything other than brand-new factories and technology implementations.
There are technologies that enable decades-old assets to communicate. Such technologies allow us to join machine data with physical environment and operational conditions data. Benefits of virtual factory technologies like digital twin are within reach for greenfield and legacy implementations.
Digital twin technologies can be used for predictive maintenance and scenario planning analysis. At its core, the digital twin is about access to real-time operational data to predict and manage the asset’s life cycle. It leverages relevant life cycle management information inside and outside the factory. The possibilities of bringing various data types together for advanced analysis are promising.
I used to see a distinction between IoT-enabled greenfield technology in new factories and legacy technology in older ones. Data flowed seamlessly from IoT-enabled machines to enterprise systems or the cloud for advanced analytics in new factories’ connected assets. In older factories, while data wanted to move to the enterprise systems or the cloud, it hit countless walls. Innovative factories were creating IoT technologies in proof of concepts (POCs) on legacy equipment, but this wasn’t the norm.
No matter the age of the factory or equipment, everything looks alike. When manufacturing companies invest in machines, the expectation is this asset will be used for a decade or more. We had to invent something inclusive to new and legacy machines and systems.
We had to create something to allow decades-old equipment from diverse brands and types (PLCs, CNCs, robots, etc.) to communicate with one another. We had to think in terms of how to make legacy machines to talk to legacy systems. Connecting was not enough. We had to make it accessible for experienced developers and technicians not specialized in systems integration.
If plant managers and leaders have clear and consumable data, they can use it for analysis and measurement. Surfacing and routing data has enabled innovative use cases in processes controlled by aged equipment. Prescriptive and predictive maintenance reduce downtime and allow access to data. This access enables remote operation and improved safety on the plant floor. Each line flows better, improving supply chain orchestration and worker productivity.
Open protocols aren’t optimized for connecting to each machine. You need tools and optimized drivers to connect to the machines, cut latency time and get the data to where it needs to be in the appropriate format to save costs. These tools include:
- Machine data collection
- Data transformation and visualization
- Device management
- Edge logic
- Embedded security
- Enterprise integration
This digital copy of the entire factory floor brings more promise for improving productivity, quality, downtime, throughput and lending access to more data and visibility. It enables factories to make small changes in the way machines and processes operate to achieve improvements.
Plants are trying to get and use data to improve overall equipment effectiveness. OEE applications can calculate how many good and bad parts were produced compared to the machine’s capacity. This analysis can go much deeper. Factories can visualize how the machine works down to sub-processes. They can synchronize each movement to the millisecond and change timing to increase operational efficiency.
The technology is here. It is mature. It’s no longer a question of whether you want to use it — you have it to get to what’s next. I think this makes it a fascinating time for smart manufacturing.