How do you upgrade a 1970s brownfield to a digital factory?

At Digital Talks 2019, Sarah Black-Smith, Head of Factory Operations at Siemens Congleton chatted to science and technology journalist, Katherine Templar-Lewis, about the journey of continuous improvement that the Congleton factory is on.

Tell us a bit about your background and your current work in Congleton.

Sarah Black-Smith (right in below image): I have a background in manufacturing engineering, and I have worked for Siemens for 10 years, firstly in Lincoln and now in Congleton.

Our Congleton factory is the oldest Siemens UK site. It was established in 1971 and was originally designed to be a warehouse and switch shop manufacturer. We developed and manufactured the first drive there in the early 1990s and the journey has continued ever since.

In conversation with Sarah Black-Smith at Digital Talks 2019

A lot of our Digital Talks audience will be anxious about starting their own digital journey, particularly with this ‘rip and replace’ approach.

The quote, ‘In theory you need to replace all of your machines, but in practice, you need to take one smart step at a time’, keeps cropping up. What do you say to that?

In practice, you can’t rip anything out; most people haven’t got capital to be able to do that even if they wanted to.

In our case, it wasn’t feasible because our building is old and there is limited space. We are also limited in the capital spend that we have got. Whatever changes we make have got to be well thought through, and they have to deliver value for our factory.

How did you approach your digital transition?

Siemens has a massive portfolio of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) tools that are designed to make factories more productive. The first thing we did was utilise those core tools by taking four people out of their day-to-day roles.

This was a challenge; we didn’t have people sitting around who were not already working. We did, however, know that we needed to make this sacrifice if we wanted to move forward.

To start with they focused on the technologies which we were not using from an advanced manufacturing point of view. Then they looked specifically at how those different tools could add value to our factory. And it evolved from there.

Do you think that is a key element of continuous improvement? To have people who can specifically focus on new ways of working?

Yes, you need to give yourself space to figure out exactly what you are not looking at before you can progress. But it is very difficult to do that, especially as a side part of your job.

Going back, what would you do differently? Were there any big challenges you faced?

I would try to get people on board earlier. I would also simplify the communication, perhaps try to boil it down to three reasons as to why we were doing certain things.

Do you think it’s easier now that people are starting to understand the digitalisation process?

I do still think that communication is a challenge. People now know what we are trying to do, but everything changes so quickly. To keep up with these changes, we need to make sure we are keeping people constantly up-to-date with what we are doing and why.

For example, we brought a robot onto the shop floor before we put it into production, and then we developed an area in the factory that we called the Robo Lab, which we still use today.

Juergen Maier, UK CEO, and Brian Holliday, MD of Digital Industries UK, in the Robo Lab

Juergen Maier, UK CEO, and Brian Holliday, MD of Digital Industries UK, in the Robo Lab.

The Robo Lab is a space that we initially created for the engineers to do trials, but it’s also somewhere that we can bring employees to show them it’s not a secret and that we don’t intend to deploy hundreds of robots onto the shop floor.

Instead, we can use this to figure out how to utilise robots so that they can make our jobs easier.

Do you find there is a worry that robots are going to replace workers?

Not so much in our factory, but I can understand why people would feel like that.

I think we’ve done a good job of engaging people by not making robots a secret and being quite open with where we think we can automate the more manual parts of our processes.

By showing people that we can increase productivity, while also helping the employees on the shop floor, we are addressing that concern head-on.

And what has been the biggest return you have seen so far?

We have been on a journey over the past five years of upskilling our manufacturing engineers in terms of robotics.

Throughout this journey, we have been mainly thinking about how we program those robots so that we don’t need to spend a lot of money with external suppliers. We have done a good job of moving forward with this so far.

I have also found there have been a lot of opportunities where harnessing data from machines, and connecting assets to the cloud is concerned. This has helped us develop a number of applications and make better decisions in certain areas, such as maintenance.

Factory Floor Congleton - image courtesy of Siemens.

The Congleton factory is the oldest Siemens UK site and is on  a journey of continuous improvement.

What’s the next thing on your agenda that you are most excited about?

We are starting to look at artificial intelligence (AI). We’re looking at how we can have the machines communicating with each other to make changes so that, if there is a quality issue, there is less human intervention needed and we can make better quality products.

If you had one piece of advice for people about to start their digital journey, what would it be?

Don’t digitalise waste. That’s one of the things that my managers have said to me on numerous occasions.

You need good processes in the first place, otherwise, you’ve just got a bad process that you’ve digitalised.

The first step is looking at the processes which aren’t as lean as they could be – and which therefore don’t add value – and then looking at where there are opportunities to digitalise or introduce automation.