Tech & skills: the perfect connection for a brighter manufacturing future

From two-way radios to smartphones, laptops to landlines, tablets to rugged handhelds no one is beyond reach in today's smart factory - image courtesy of DFC.

Alan Norbury, industrial CTO for Siemens UK & Ireland, says a technologic revolution has started, so while many British manufacturers pride themselves in sweating assets, foreign competitors are investing in technologies that are accelerating innovation cycles beyond all expectations.

If we look back at some of the great technological landmarks in history you’ll find that today’s industrial innovation is accelerating at an unprecedented pace.

Alan Norbury, industrial chief technology officer, Siemens UK & Ireland.
Alan Norbury, industrial chief technology officer, Siemens UK & Ireland.

Dr Martin Cooper, a senior engineer at Motorola, made the world’s first mobile phone call in 1973, but it took an entire decade before the DynaTAC 8000x was sold as the first commercial handheld cellular phone in 1983. It weighed 0.8kg, stood 33cm high, stored 30 numbers, took 10 hours to recharge, offered 30 minutes talk-time and cost £2,639!

Today, innovation cycles of more than a decade for a mobile phone would simply not be acceptable.  Although clearly today’s mobile phone innovations are built on predecessor developments, some incredible advancements in technology have significantly reduced innovation cycles.

There are plenty of examples of mind boggling reductions in innovation cycles.  Ian Donald, head of R&D at Siemens Congleton – an award-winning manufacturing facility producing over 500,000 Variable Speed Drives (VSDs) a year for the world market –  says that a combination of forward thinking investment in PLM modelling and simulation software; a Virtual Reality Suite; the adoption of continuous process improvement techniques, and a culture of innovation acceptance, innovation cycles that were taking up to 36 months to complete just three years ago have today been dramatically reduced to just one year.

Rapid prototyping

One of the key advancements is in the area of prototype customer acceptance. Today, customers can immerse themselves in the 3D Virtual Reality Suite and experience prototypes in unrivalled detail at any angle and virtually travel through the layers of design.

Engineers designing and producing 3D printed components at RAF Marham.
Rapid prototyping is here to stay.

3D virtual reality allows the customer to rapidly and collaboratively identify areas for further development or instant acceptance. Physical prototype iterations have always taken a significant amount of time before the final model is produced.

Today, however, many of the early prototype iterations can be completed in the virtual world and physical prototypes can be 3D printed, saving a significant amount of development time.

Rapid prototyping is here to stay. But the ultimate vision is to reach zero physical prototyping, in other words, the first physical prototype becomes the final production model.

Clearly technological innovations are making a massive difference to R&D, but is it influencing the manufacturing sector?

Andrew Peters, MD at Siemens Congleton, faces the challenge of manufacturing half a million VSD’s a year against a backdrop of ever increasing pressure of year-on-year productivity improvement targets.

Incidentally, the facility has averaged well over 5% during the past five years – an incredible achievement when you consider the UK’s average manufacturing productivity growth in recent years has been less than 0.5%.

The manufacturing process is also going through a consistently accelerating innovation cycle.

To put this into context, just six years ago it would take 90 hours to produce a VSD, today it can be manufactured in just 60 minutes.

So how can such startling productivity gains be achieved? In this case, Siemens PLM simulation and modelling software has played a critical part, allowing stakeholders; managers; engineers, and operators to rapidly evaluate, contribute and engineer in the virtual world and gain consensus, before physically altering factory layout, machine design, and drive component manufacturing processes.

In addition to the planning process, the manufacturing process is also going through a consistently accelerating innovation cycle.

The latest investments include Siemens Totally Integrated Automation (TIA), a powerful single engineering environment designed to create an infrastructure where changes in manufacturing can be rapidly optimised, through a combination of customer and supply chain digital connectivity and enhanced visibility of business-related data.

So what next?

Well in addition to the ever continuous productivity improvement challenge, work is already starting on mass customisation – in other words, creating manufacturing capabilities to meet specific customer requirements.

Connected Technologies Mobile Industry 4.0
Industry 4.0 is commonly used to define the future of digital manufacturing based on IIOT, connectivity and big data.

The real challenge is how this is achievable at the same speed and quality as today’s mass production.

Meeting the challenge of mass customisation and cyber-physical manufacturing form the underlying principles behind the vision of Industry 4.0 – the fourth industrial revolution.

This is the term now commonly used to define the future of digital manufacturing based on the industrial internet of things (IIOT) connectivity and, as a consequence, big data.

IIOT should not to be confused with the internet of things (IoT). We are talking about industrial connectivity i.e. a digitally connected manufacturing and supply chain, sensors with intelligence, Ethernet connectivity, built-in web servers, and connections to the outside world that ultimately produce significant masses of data.

It’s estimated that approximately 30% of UK industry has a fully connected manufacturing process based on industrial Ethernet.

The sophistication of the UK's chemical industry gives it the edge in emerging markets
Ethernet is the backbone of the Digital Factory.

However, with Ethernet the backbone of the Digital Factory, companies need to consider that their first investment when upgrading to a fully integrated Digital Factory setting has to be a focus upon the communications infrastructure.

This is one of the reasons IT managers are developing a closer engagement with the manufacturing process and spending more time than ever supporting operations and overcoming the security challenge of connecting shop floor to top floor, and extending digital communications to both customers and the supply chain.

Siemens has been supporting its customers with various manufacturing productivity improving services for many years. Siemens Customer Service offerings are also addressing the challenges that will be faced by the factories of the future.

These include security, eliminating communication vulnerabilities and improving speed of machine-to- machine connectivity through a ‘Defence-In-Depth’ approach to comprehensive plant protection.

Big DataBig data

Siemens Plant Data Services are also turning big data into business data. It’s about recording, filtering and structuring data to deliver real added business value.

Irrespective of the kind of data source such as energy, asset, or process, Siemens technology is supporting the delivery of data that allows customers to make sound fact-based decisions at all times.

Big data with future algorithms will ultimately develop to the point where machines will be capable of self-healing and self- adapting – in other words self-aware.

We are also witnessing the use of cloud-based industrial apps, which can filter big data into business data, enabling the availability of critical business information and essential for strategic decision-making in order to compete head-to-head in a globally competitive world.

Operational experts with deep knowledge of their processes and machines will be able to develop their own apps, aware that Siemens will be the secure custodians of the data with connectivity based on the well-established and trusted SAP HANA® cloud platform.

Many tools designed to optimise manufacturing processes rely on supply chain connectivity, however some of these tools may be cost prohibitive for many small companies.

Infor launches cloud PLM Solution Designed For Discrete Manufacturers in Europe
Many tools designed to optimise manufacturing processes rely on supply chain connectivity enabled via Cloud-based industrial apps.

Cloud-based industrial apps may well be the answer – which through the use of a pay per use model – could assist many manufacturing enterprises on the journey towards achieving a fully integrated and connected supply chain.

While such innovations and new technology developments will clearly change the way we do business, the real challenge will be how to develop the skills needed by the engineers of the future.

Future skills

As parents we carefully try not to over expose our children to cyber technology such as gaming and social media.

However, this will inevitably be the technology foundations they will need to master in order to assist businesses compete more globally and solve the current UK’s manufacturing ‘productivity puzzle’ and ‘customisation conundrum’.

Engineers of the future will increasingly spend more time designing and engineering in the virtual world and less in the physical world.

Engineers of the future will increasingly spend more time designing and engineering in the virtual world and less in the physical world.

Teaching and educational processes will need to adapt to encourage the development and attainment of hybrid skills e.g. mechanical; electrical; modelling; simulation and informatics.

The future needs of advanced, high value manufacturing will require skills very similar to that of the gaming industry.

All stakeholders need to help encourage and attract young people into the kind of highly skilled and challenging environment that is sought by school leavers today. Engineering can hold its own in this regard against the gaming industry.

It is clear there’s a lot we can do to be more globally competitive by using the technology that is available today.

If we also consider the additional benefits the guiding principles of Industry 4.0 could deliver to help grow our economy in tandem with the unmatched British engineering pedigree, we truly have all the ingredients needed to put Britain in the driving seat of the fourth industrial revolution.