Smart Factories Produce Quality Results
Along with a sister plant in Amberg, Germany, Siemens Electronic Works Chengdu (SEWC) which is located in China, is the world’s second Smart Factory that produces programmable logic controllers, human-machine interfaces, and industrial PCs in an Industry 4.0, digital manufacturing environment.
Digital Manufacturing Is not Quite Automation
Most people think of automated manufacturing simply as robots replacing humans, but digital manufacturing is not quite the same. Assistant General Manager of SEWC, Li Yongli explains, “Siemens believes that while digital manufacturing will become the mainstream production model within the next 10 to 20 years, equipment automation should be done not to replace humans, but to help them. Humans and machines will collaborate to produce higher quality products more efficiently.”
Some companies place more emphasis on efficiency through traditional means, like fully automated production operations. However, Siemens takes a different approach. They believe high quality drives efficiency rather than being an adjunct to it. Li Yongli stresses that simply replacing humans with automation may be popular, but improving quality is a better path to improved efficiency. Siemens maintains quality as its first priority, and then ensures on-time delivery, innovation, and a sustainable corporate culture support it. To Li, quality is always job one and efficiency gains flow from there.
Siemens designed their factory primarily to help workers build products right the first time, but the same tools and processes that promote high quality are equally useful in efficiently buying material, cutting waste, designing and building products faster, and getting them out the door sooner.
For example, Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGV) deliver materials for assembly. They arrive with computerized product information and an indicator light on the parts container identifies which parts to install. Quality goes up by eliminating confusion, but efficiency also improves. Workers no longer sort through parts and instructions to find the correct ones, so they can build products much more efficiently. Clearly, converting high quality to better efficiency works. SEWC’s quality rate is an astounding 99.9985%, yet deliveries are on time 98.8% of the time.
Collaboration between R&D and Manufacturing
Collaboration between R&D and manufacturing plays its part too. Collecting and processing assembly information from the factory floor helps R&D create foolproof designs that are easily maintained and upgraded. Customers benefit from the improved quality, but the same data also helps design products that are easier and quicker to build. That knowledge also helps the factory quickly adjust when product versions change or the factory must make multiple versions in the same production run.
If there is a big pay off in high quality production, digital management has an even greater potential. Siemens uses a Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) strategy that combines data from many sources and systems to build repeatable processes and automatically manage them more efficiently. The PLM process can collect information that is more complete and more quickly correlated than humans alone could accomplish.
For example, the PLM system stores basic product and process data and, if there are updates, an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system automatically reflects them. When the ERP system receives an order, it automatically calculates the materials required and tells the PLM to add stock. If there is a problem with a part, the system stops production and collects status data. When the variance is rectified, and the PLM and ERP systems have cross-checked all data, the process controller will restart production.
The Manufacturing Execution System (MES) pulls it all together. Large display walls show R&D, production, logistics, and quality management systems in real-time — including manufacturing and assembly process simulations that help anticipate problems before an interruption on the shop floor. Since most production is automated, the majority of human work is in handling the anomalies, supervising equipment operation, and conducting product re-inspections. The entire production process is paperless.
PLM works too: Improving efficiency allows for capacity increases without increasing the costs associated with human labor. For example, when the Amberg factory began production in 1990, it had a floor area of 10,000 square meters and 1,000 employees. Twenty-five years later, the factory’s capacity has increased 7-fold and it produces hundreds of products, yet, neither the floor area nor the number of employees have changed. The entire Amberg warehouse needs only four supervisors per shift.
Has SEWC already arrived at Industry 4.0? The answer is that industry innovation is a long-term process of sustained improvements. Industry 4.0 is a vision and Siemens is steadily improving, integrating their own products’ strengths, and is on the road to Industry 4.0.
(The original transcript of this article appeared in e-works, and was edited by Huawei.)