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5 for Friday: A Connected Plant is Essential for the Future

April 21, 2023
Hannover Messe offers digital solutions as an imperative—because everything has changed.

At the last Hannover Messe I attended four years ago, the Internet of Things (IoT) was a pretty interesting industrial technology, but still largely just a concept. The letters “IoT” seemingly were on every booth and wedged into every discussion, but we had yet to see it reach its operational potential.

One pandemic and one supply chain crisis later, manufacturing has absorbed IoT in one form of another. Industry has moved past IoT and in a dramatic new direction, embracing the social issues of climate change and sustainability as business imperatives and a digital manufacturing plant as the way to erase the siloed production structure.

With the rapid pace of change in manufacturing, plant management must decide quickly how to incorporate these technologies and strategies into their operation. It is no longer a matter of if manufacturing production should change. Those who fail to adapt to manufacturing’s new digital landscape will be unable to effectively move their organization into the next decade of growth and profitability.

While every supplier has its own take on how to accomplish this, five themes have emerged:

1. A Digital Plant, from Design to Operations to Maintenance

Digital design is no longer its own reward. It has to be incorporated into an operational model at the time of design, and that model must be available to all stakeholders. It will need to be a living document that can be adjusted as changes in material supply or product improvements are made. This formed some of the discussions Machine Design had last month as part of its Engineering Academy event on Design for Manufacturability and Assembly.

2. A True Digital Twin

The digital twin will be a fully realized plant model that can allow designers to test and adapt designs before any materials are used. Beyond that, however, the digital twin will be an operational tool that can measure, manage and simulate process changes to evaluate their outcomes before those changes are implemented. It also will be a maintenance tool that can track and monitor equipment stresses and prepare for repair or replacement before the machine does go down. Here’s one example of how that digital twin might work in an essential workplace machine: the coffee maker.

3. Building a Scalable Digital Foundation

Then there are the rapidly arriving themes of artificial intelligence and machine learning. There were numerous examples of these concepts on display at Hannover Messe, but leaping ahead to AI without a digital foundation isn’t possible or practical. The digital plant, and a digital philosophy, is essential. But this doesn’t need to happen all at once, nor is it a one-size-fits-all approach. The best part about the digital plant may be its scalability. If the sheer size of the new digital universe seems overwhelming, the good news is that it is acceptable—even encouraged—to start small, gain success, and build your digital infrastructure from there.

4. If Not Human Workers, Then What?

The underlying challenge remains the workforce shortage. It is a global issue—the workforces in the United States, Germany and China are all equally stressed. The result has been more automation, more robotics, more digitalization and the most efficient use of humans possible. The changes in global worker attitudes and availability of manufacturing staff have forced plant management to evaluate where automation and robotics best fit in their operation. They are finding many areas where productivity, safety and profitability can be enhanced with automated systems. If the worker shortage does not abate—and there are no signs this is happening soon—the use of automation will accelerate to meet global demand for new products faster.

5. Everything Has Changed

All of this is propelled by the fundamental changes of the last five years. The pandemic forced manufacturers to go digital to remain in business. Now they are looking at ways to finally be able to fully optimize those digital solutions. The supply chain crisis has forced a more regional approach to supply management and to smaller, more localized production hubs. That also requires a connected digital backbone where designs can be easily shared, and production quickly adjusted to meet immediate needs. But for manufacturers that want or need to be global in their approach, having a connected enterprise that shares design and operational data and manages energy and materials efficiently—and can change its design parameters to meet changes in supply availability—will be essential as well.

Visit Machine Design's Hannover Messe hub for more event coverage.

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