Almost every conference, magazine and manufacturing seminar are throwing out more and more buzz words. Over the past couple of years, you have probably heard MES, Industry 4.0 and Smart Factory used with increasing frequency. But what do they mean? Actually, they mean different things to different people. There are certainly differences between industry sectors, but they can mean totally different things to 2 very similar companies.

In a perfect world, a manufacturing company would have a consistent production schedule of the same product, know exactly how long it would take, always achieve 100% quality, with no downtime or training requirements. If this is you – stop reading now. However, if you are in the real world, you will be constantly juggling ever-changing challenges and you probably have some fairly good procedures to control them. You may also be unaware that there may be other systems out there which can help in a variety of ways.

Quality has to be one of the top priorities in most companies. So, once you have established the levels you plan to deliver: how do you achieve that, monitor it and ensure it remains consistent or better, still improves? If you could track each quality control check and record all defects (or even potential defects) you have the basis to measure and understand where improvement activities need to take place. It is quite common to see Excel or other spreadsheet style software in use to record such information. Excel is very familiar to most users, but this can become quite unwieldy. The data is ‘flat’, 2 dimensional: making it difficult to drill into or consider information you originally hadn’t thought to record. Manual data entry can be time consuming, prone to errors and limited to the fields available in the sheet. In addition, if different users enter information in slightly different ways, you have grouping issues later. There is also the issue that only one user can edit a spreadsheet at once, either causing locks or meaning results need to be combined at a later process, resulting in only having data available too late ‘after the event’.

How much time is spent checking production and progress of Work Orders / Batches, calculating delivery times and reporting them through meetings? Usually by the time it is reported, the information is once again out of date and has taken up unnecessary resources to gather.

Let’s assume you now know how many good products you have produced. Was this good or bad? Could you improve? How would you improve? Which processes, areas, products, equipment, parts, etc. would benefit from a little attention?

Are all of your processes water tight and fool proof? The first thing needed is to ensure that all processes are completed in the correct order without production advancing when problems are still existing. Next, the operator needs training or clear enough instructions to ensure each process is completed in full to the correct standard. This usually requires a range of paperwork and controls to ensure the correct revisions are available at the correct time.

In addition to producing, there could be other paperwork requirements for traceability. It is important that this is made as easy as possible to prevent mistakes and remain efficient.

So, with all these complex factors which are ever changing, a little help is likely to be useful. This is where our interpretation of Smart Factory lies. If we can simplify the majority of the above-mentioned challenges; life would be easier for everyone. If you can collect data without impacting your manufacturing activities, you have a live picture of what is happening, the status of each Work Order and the Quality Levels / Issues. Couple that with the correct user interface, decisions can be taken away from the shop floor, preventing mistakes or wasted time by ensuring only the correct processes can be actioned with the correct instructions for the relevant revision of product 100% of the time.

How

MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems) enable production control in a variety of ways. With KwikTic, we first start with creating product routes, to control the process flow for different batches. As processes are completed, each step in the Route is also completed, giving real time production data. When complex processes are encountered, Electronic Work Instructions can be displayed to the user, providing pictures, video, text, pdfs, presentations, etc., basically a richer more friendly instruction than conventional paper.

Working this way with an MES system can also allow simple collection of other data such as Test Results, Values, Child Serial Numbers, Material Used and Defects found / rectified. Some of this data is collected from simple point and click, others from barcode scans and some values may involve on the fly verification or manual input.

Industry 4.0

Equipment these days is becoming more and more advanced and a number of machines have interfaces to enable data collection of parameters for each process action or machine status. Industry 4.0 harnesses this information and processes it to enable automatic data collection and reporting in one central location: removing the requirement for operator input. This data from various processes, combined with manual operator input from manual processes, allows reporting on the bigger picture and various levels of drilling down.

As an example, KwikTic enables Industry 4.0 machine data collection in a variety of ways. KwikTic Agent is a service which directly connects, reads, parses and processes outputs from various machines, all in the background as each process is completed. In some cases, this information is created based on a standard, in others, the outputs are bespoke to the particular equipment type.

In many cases, it makes sense for the end user to have control over the parsing and injection of data from certain machines. For example, there may be specific Test Equipment which will undergo periodic updates and changes. It could be difficult, expensive and involve delays if the end user needed to communicate and request changes from their MES supplier. For these cases, it is worth ensuring the correct level of internal customisation is available, to give control to yourselves to tweak and add new interfaces when you require them. KwikTic addresses this by offering an API allowing users to pass in their own JSON or XML data or an SDK with DLLs which enables custom software applications (e.g. VB.Net, C#, etc.) to quickly be written by the customer.

In the same way, as communicating with machines may be important, connecting to other business systems may be beneficial. If this is the case, Industry 4.0 MES implementations should have some form of gateway to enable this in a flexible way. For example, automatically sharing Work Orders from your MRP / ERP system saves double entry of data.

Implementation

Rome wasn’t built in a day and likewise, trying to implement everything everywhere is going to present a whole lot of problems. We have seen smaller users up and running on day one, but inevitably, flexible systems can be implemented in many different ways. There are a variety of ‘food groups’ which could be approached. Maybe it is implementing for a single Cell/ Line or maybe it is addressing a specific feature such as machine performance or delivering electronic Work Instructions . Whichever way, it is always best to plan a step by step approach listing the main priorities. Depending on how successful each is, the timescales may be brought forward.

Fail and Fail fast. This is the future. Years ago, before we had PCs on most engineers’ desks or mobile phones, we would not have believed how reliant we would become. So, sitting back waiting is not a sensible option. With a scalable system, costs, including internal resource can still be low providing your solution is Scalable. Start small, realise the benefits and grow when the time is right. Mistakes will be made, but lessons will be learned that will position you in a strong position, reaping the benefits now and better understanding the meaning of all these buzz words for the future.

KwikTic have been delivering MES / Industry 4.0 software to enable Smart Factories for over 10 years to small medium assembly companies, mostly in the Electronics sector. We are always open to arrange online demonstrations and discuss any questions you have.