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Comprehensive smart factory solutions have arrived at last, helping manufacturers take control of their operational technology (OT) data for the first time. The result is greater efficiency, increased profitability, and greener operations.
The power of smart factory solutions lies in how they allow manufacturers to collect, coordinate, and visualize a disparate mass of data from the factory floor in a unified digital format—in essence, merging the spheres of OT and IT. This might sound like a fundamental step in the digital transformation of manufacturing, but until recently it has been surprisingly difficult to implement.
“OT data is quite challenging to manage because of the diversity of proprietary data protocols used by industrial machines,” says Eric Lo, Associate Vice President of Strategic Marketing for NEXCOM, the parent company of NexAIoT, a specialist in industrial computing and smart factory solutions. Legacy machines can also be hard to integrate with modern IT networks.
The encouraging news is that specialists like NexAIoT have now developed the hardware and software capabilities needed to implement end-to-end smart factory solutions. Some of these solutions are already in deployment—and the early results are extremely promising.
A Smart Factory Comes to Life
Case in point: NexAIoT’s implementation at the production facility of a prominent notebook computer manufacturer. The company wanted to modernize its factory operations. But their vision was highly ambitious, encompassing comprehensive digitization in which every step of the production process could be traced and managed from a centralized platform.
“They needed visibility into all kinds of data, from production status, manufacturing parameters, and factory environmental conditions to the bill of materials for current and finished products,” recalls CL Chiang, Director of IoT Automation at NexAIoT. The company also had many machines with proprietary data protocols—especially in their component assembly and motherboard fabrication areas. Data from this equipment needed to be made available to the factory IT network for centralized monitoring, management, scheduling, and capacity planning.
Working with the computer manufacturer, NexAIoT developed a complete smart factory solution that provided the insight and control the company needed. Industrial personal computers (IPCs) were used to collect and collate data from industrial machinery. These IPCs acted as gateways and edge server devices, translating the machines’ different data languages into the widely used OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA) industrial communication protocol.
With a common data format in place, information from the production line could be integrated with the facility’s core IT systems: customer relationship management (CRM), incoming quality control (iQC), enterprise resource planning (ERP), and the manufacturing execution system (MES). NexAIoT also helped the manufacturer incorporate a computer vision-based defect recognition system, allowing quality assurance workers to spot defects and potential issues in real time. In addition, NexAIoT provided features beyond the company’s specifications, including predictive maintenance capability and a centralized dashboard where managers can visualize production data, helping them make better business decisions.
#SmartFactories are already delivering tangible benefits to #manufacturing businesses. These solutions, and the wider ecosystem in which they are developing, will likely bring even greater upside to the sector. @NEXCOMUSA via @insightdottech
The result is an end-to-end smart factory solution that has helped the company bring its operations into the industry 4.0 era.
IPC Technology Boosts Control and Efficiency
The computational heart of the smart factory solution is the TT300-A30 Fanless System IPC—a rugged, powerful machine built for performance at the industrial edge.
NexAIoT used industrial computers running on Intel® Core™ processors, allowing them to deliver features including Intel® Time Coordinated Computing (Intel® TCC) to reduce latency and provide real-time control. “The Intel processors also support multi-display outputs, which allows them to work on different workloads at the same time for better efficiency,” says Mark Tuo, Product Manager of NexAIoT’s IPC system.
When IPCs are combined with sensors, AI, and data visualization tools, factories gain several key benefits:
- Profitability: Greater insight into operational data enables better business decisions and predictive maintenance, while computer vision can be used for quality assurance. Manufacturers boost their bottom line by increasing efficiency, optimizing processes, and reducing downtime and defects.
- Sustainability: Detailed power consumption data from the production line helps facilities use energy more efficiently through load balancing and the timely replacement of aging equipment that is no longer energy-efficient. The result is a lowered carbon footprint and less overall waste.
- Safety: Because smart factories automate the collection of information from industrial machines, it is no longer necessary to manually examine equipment to gather performance data. This keeps workers out of harm’s way since they no longer have to enter noisy and risky environments.
Extending the OT – IT Pipeline
Smart factories are already delivering tangible benefits to manufacturing businesses. But in coming years, these solutions, and the wider ecosystem in which they are developing, will likely bring even greater upside to the sector.
The continued integration of artificial intelligence into manufacturing is one part of this story. NexAIoT, for example, is looking at ways to use AI to optimize factory operations to achieve ESG goals, and is also investigating the use of AI to identify and mitigate production process bottlenecks.
In addition, the current wave of industrial digitization may one day expand to encompass a factory’s customers. By integrating the purchasing process into the smart factory system, buyers will be able to order from manufacturers more directly and efficiently, and manufacturers will gain greater control over inventory management and demand forecasting.
There will undoubtedly be many challenges along the way, as well as new possibilities. But Lo says that this is to be expected—and embraced: “Industry 4.0 is not just another solution. It’s a long-term journey to continue improving the manufacturing process for greater efficiency, sustainability, and profitability.”
This article was edited by Teresa Meek, Contributor for insight.tech.