Even in terms of the right terminology to use for it because in this country, as set out in Made Smarter, a government-commissioned review on industrial digitalisation in the UK, we refer to it as digital manufacturing.
Several large manufacturers have taken big steps on their path towards digitalisation, such as British business Meggitt. Its digital manufacturing strategy, called Meggitt Modular Modifiable Manufacturing (M4), will see smart tools and big data being used in its factories to help improve processes. However, other manufacturing businesses, particularly small firms, often don’t have the time and spare resources to start on this digitalisation journey.
But there is support out there for them. For instance, within WMG (Warwick Manufacturing Group), a large department at the University of Warwick, there is a team focused on supporting small firms. This team can assess where the business is in terms of technology adoption. They often find that the biggest challenge is a lack of IT skills on the factory floor and they therefore work with these companies to gradually introduce digital technologies.
WMG has designed its own technology, called WMG Manufacturing Information Platform, to help the SME team do this. “The challenge with small businesses is they’ve often got different manufacturing machines most of which are from different manufacturers and so you’d need to retrofit sensors onto them. Not being able to find a good, low-cost solution that included hardware, connectivity and data all in one package, our electronics engineers started to work on a solution in-house,” said Dr Daniel Peavoy, innovation manager at WMG SME Group.
The key aims with this technology were to make it as low cost as possible as well as robust enough to survive manufacturing environments. It’s an Arduino platform based on an 8-bit microcontroller and CAN-Bus connectors. It utilises the CANopen open-source communication protocol, which means it’s easy to configure and suitable to integrate with manufacturing machines.
“With our Manufacturing Information Platform we’ve put a whole stack together from the hardware layer, software to the data analytics layer. The CANopen software layer integrates all the data together from different sensors so everything can talk to each other automatically. The data analytics layer will then process that raw data and present it as user-friendly interfaces through web apps that will enable SMEs to make meaningful decisions based on the data,” said Peavoy.
Avoid idle periods
There is no doubt that all small firms would like to see productivity increase and, in a typical example of this technology in practice, a sensor could be retrofitted to a machine to help understand why it’s not being as productive as hoped. “You might just need one sensor at the machine’s home position so that every time it homes itself to zero the sensor will detect how long it’s idle for. Then, by applying data analytics, SMEs can start drilling into what is happening during those idle periods. It could be that it’s idle during lunch, and a solution could be flexibility around staggered lunch breaks,” said Dr Kylash Makenji, principal engineer at WMG SME Group.
It’s early days for the WMG Manufacturing Information Platform. “In one recent project we were monitoring machinery in a factory and through data analytics identified 30% of that SME’s capacity that was going spare,” said Makenji.
While many small firms are still confused as to what Industry 4.0 or digital manufacturing is, if it’s explained as adopting technologies, on a small scale initially, that can provide opportunities to improve productivity, then more might just get on board with it.
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