The Connected Plant in the Digital World

While most in the manufacturing industry understand the implications of a connected plant, less know why or how this shift should occur. Find out three actions your company should consider before making the transformation.

Sanjiv K Preferred

There are multiple definitions of the connected plant on various forums from various organizations. The emphasis on a particular construct may change, but essentially, it’s always about real-time visibility, providing insights into plant operations, and at the highest level of maturity, providing predictive capability and autonomous operation.

This is possible through connectivity to assets, machines, and control systems, and by leveraging digital technologies such as Big Data, cloud, mobility, API-based integration, microservices, and artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms.

These constructs take the shape of different applications like plant historians, OPC servers, digital Andon boards, daily work management, plant manager dashboards, Industrial Internet of Things platforms, analytics workbenches, and many others, all working in conjunction with advanced automation, autonomous vehicles, next-gen robots and collaborative robots, augmented and virtual reality equipment, digital twins, 3D printing, RFID, and a whole host of new Industry 4.0 technologies.

But before digging into the technology aspects, it’s important to harmonize and streamline business processes on the plant floor. The essential activities of production, quality, material flow, maintenance, and environmental health and safety have not changed, but these activities need to be aligned for the plant, and more importantly, to the overall vision of the organization.

This brings us to the aspect of having the right set of measures and key performance indicators (KPIs) in a consumable data product, such as a dashboard, to determine whether you are winning or if you need to make some course corrections.

The industry seems to be well aware of what a connected plant is and what the key constructs of its implementation are. The big question is why this should be done and how to move forward.

I’ve been talking to various manufacturing organizations about their challenges in initiating and realizing their connected plant objectives. Besides having the technical know-how to implement the systems of the connected plant, I have come to recommend three important activities to consider before embarking on this journey.

Business case and strategy
I think this is the biggest challenge manufacturing plants face in terms of adopting Industry 4.0 and realizing the vision of connected plants. The benefits are not straight forward, especially in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic where many plants are running at limited capacity. It’s important to truly understand the impact of the connected plant within a single function as well as between multiple functions.

For example, insights from overall equipment effectiveness would help in focusing not only on the maintenance and quality functions, but also on the production planning and scheduling functions. The throughput improvement decision would have an impact on energy consumption as well. The biggest areas of improvement are yield, throughput, inventory, and the positive impact of avoiding breakdowns and major incidents. It’s important to lay out the business plan for your connected plants and include both qualitative and quantitative benefits.

Change management
The power of the connected plant systems gets unlocked when the systems, processes, and functions are connected in context. It’s beyond a specific work cell, assembly line, or any other production area. This requires a change in mindset and a cultural change on the shop floor. It requires a change in perspective from point systems to an integrated view, from local efficiency improvements to integrated plant floor scorecard improvements, and from efficiency and cost optimization to a transformation and growth focus. Develop a comprehensive track for change management as part of your strategy which includes understanding the benefits and impacts of the connected operations and the ability to use the digital technology.

Product-centric organization approach
A lot of questions on the viability of Industry 4.0 concepts and technologies have now been addressed and each industry is adopting Industry 4.0 in its own way. As was mentioned in the beginning of this article, there are different applications which can be implemented but it’s important to have a game plan—a high-level vision of the end state and a paced plan—to build it block by block.

The product-centric organization approach is most appropriate where you define one or more products to meet your connected plant vision and objectives, and then build your applications based on the business case over a period of time. The concepts of agile development are very helpful in thinking big, but pace the deployment of different use cases over time. Be sure to carefully define the minimum viable product for each product and the development backlog for use cases.

These three activities included as part of your connected plant initiative will help provide management buy-in, employee adoption, and the realization of significant benefits.

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