Viva le smart factory! Schneider Electric show us how it’s done

Posted on 7 Nov 2023 by Tom St John

Technology continues to shape the ever-evolving industrial landscape, as well as the course of progress. On a trip to its site in Leeds, it’s clear that Schneider Electric is etching its way into the pages of modern industrial history, with a sizeable chapter dedicated to digital mastery. Several members of the team chat with The Manufacturer’s Tom St John, to discuss aspirations of a more electrified, connected and conscientious industrial world.

The Leeds facility of Schneider Electric was impressively connected. As you’ll read in this article, the site has had to tick a number of boxes to achieve its smart factory status. A fairly standard looking shopfloor at first glance – no whirling robots or automated machines are instantly visible – but as you delve deeper you come across an array of smart processes, such as touchscreen displays and digital inventory devices. The people we spoke to are reflective of the company; intelligent, process-driven… and French.

A multinational company, and one that has embedded itself in the Leeds community, but unmistakably French, with headquarters in Rueil-Malmaison, about a 15 minute drive from Paris, and three of the four men you’re about to hear from had a somewhat Gallic twang. Much of the insight from the guys at Schneider centred around digital transformation; the smart factory journey that the site in Leeds has been through, the challenges of implementing this and advice for other companies embarking down a similar road.

Stay with us until the end for equally intriguing approaches to skills gaps within the business and the mindsets on diversity within the Schneider workforce. The four people you’re about to hear from are all men, which isn’t helping the point I’m trying to make here, but on a tour of this facility it was quite evident that women make up a decent percentage of shopfloor workers.

And indeed, diversity and inclusion is a value pillar of the company, which prompts the final question in this article. Read on to uncover our learnings from Schneider Electric in Leeds.

Give us some background on Schneider Electric, specifically the site in Leeds

David Barrett-Hague, Head of Industrial Automation Marketing for UK & Ireland & Sustainability Ambassador: Schneider Electric is one of those companies whose products most people use every day without knowing about it. You can find us in the power station all the way through to the socket in your kitchen. Whether it’s building management, a data centre or a factory, we are providing automation and services that support that industry.

We operate in 100 countries, but really focus on supporting our customers locally. So, although our reach is global, we want to maintain that local support for our customers. In each country, we have teams dedicated to services, software and technology. The place we’re sitting in now is one of our Innovation Hubs, which we have throughout the world. These are customer experience centres to demonstrate our technology and how we solve customers’ problems.

In Leeds, any grey box you see in the street is probably a Schneider box – a medium voltage device bringing power from the grid to the perimeter of where commercial buildings sit. Although we provide the infrastructure, we also digitalise it. All these devices, whether it’s a substation in the street or your consumer unit at home, we’re collecting data from them.

This is data that can be used to decarbonise the world. A lot of our customers are measuring unit of production by kilowatt hours. And once you can get down to that granularity, you can then look at how to save energy but also decarbonise.

A Schneider Electric grey box

What trends are you seeing within manufacturing?

Laurent Bergier, Leeds Site Director: From the customer side, there is greater demand for connected solutions. They’re moving away from what we used to call grey boxes – what we used to supply as switchgears and ring main units (RMUs) to utilities – and now want to use connected products. This enables them to measure what is currently happening on their products. They can control it and do preventive checks remotely.

Guillaume Lafforgue, Digital Transformation Manager: Here in Leeds, we are an engineering to order (ETO) factory. That means we have a full process integrated with our customers. We receive the requests, we provide a quote, and if the customer is happy, we execute the project. This drives our engineering design.

All our products are different. We have an engineering department that designs electrical and mechanical schematics, we then purchase the parts with our supply chain team before going into production. We do that until the final test at the end of the production line. We welcome our customers on-site for factory acceptance tests. And when they are happy with their products, we ship them to site.

This facility recently achieved smart factory status. Tell us how this came about

GL: Our smart factory programme has been rolled out across Schneider Electric at a global level and we have pushed different factories to become smart. We set out a catalogue of solutions that a factory must deploy to be able to achieve this certification. These solutions centre around energy management, manufacturing solutions seen on the shopfloor and supply chain management tools. As we are an ETO site, we also have tools that we apply in our offices, engineering department and within project management. It is a well-rounded catalogue of solutions which are helping us to improve our efficiency, performance and the quality of our products. This factory is different to others; being an ETO site we are less automated.

We have a high mix, low volume production, which means that it’s difficult to implement automation such as shopfloor machines and robots. What we have done is work on the integration of solutions with the operators, for example, touchscreens and tablets, and being really agile with our feedback. It’s a constant loop of actions, feedback and improvements.

Are there any concepts that have been deployed here that other manufacturers could benefit from?

Francois Disch, Principal Consultant: There are quite a few easy concepts to grasp, and they are certainly not new. There are technologies that are 50 years old that are still commonplace and fit to be deployed; we’re talking about manufacturing execution systems (MES) and product lifecycle management software that are very mature and are still making a difference.

We’re seeing established methods still being deployed; lean manufacturing, for example, has been around for decades. We need to roll these out – it’s the basics. Something which is slightly more emerging is how people are involved in this digital world. The strength of a manufacturer is in the understanding of the process. The reason for success is how these processes are managed i.e., by people who receive information and provide feedback on how to improve.

Warehouse maintenance at Schneider Electric

This is a process that digital really needs to capture. It’s difficult, but this is where the richness lies. However, we need to find a way to formalise the feedback I’ve just referred to, from the people working on the shopfloor. This needs to find its way to factory managers, to ensure that new ideas are actually put to use.

Of course, we need to have top-down approaches with clear direction being provided by management and corporate, but the tools to deploy and the way data is structured needs to be aligned to the needs identified through a bottom-up approach. One of the challenges around digital transformation is in merging applications in a very disparate landscape. There are lots of digital tools that are fancy and attractive individually, but don’t necessarily work well together.

What we do is provide an ecosystem of compatible software and tools. We also have the right people who understand them individually and can help to explain why something doesn’t fit exactly as expected. More companies are looking into productivity solutions and are trying to f ind the right digital tools to put these in place. This is improving the throughput of factories but more importantly, it’s about getting the right kind of mindset into adopting these tools. Instead of limiting digital processes to intimate areas of the business, such as R&D, manufacturers are opening up a lot more, and are asking for external help to implement this across businesses.

Tell us about Schneider’s journey towards net-zero

GL: First of all, we electrified our fleet of business cars. We also looked at our supplier base to see how we could receive parts more sustainably. We’ve reduced packaging by implementing this strategy and are now able to order more in bulk. Even on our shopfloor we are trying to become paperless. Elements such as schematics are now available on screens rather than on printed paper. And we implement our own solutions to manage our energy monitoring and reduce our consumption. So, there are lots of elements contributing to the journey towards net zero.

A big issue for manufacturers over the last few years has been supply chain disruption due to COVID, Brexit and the war in Ukraine. How has Schneider overcome this?

LB: All manufactures have had challenges in this department, and we are no different. The industry has been impacted by semiconductor shortages, scarcity of raw materials and a drain on resources – we’ve all had the same issues. The decision we took at the beginning of the crisis was to centralise the metals we needed; this was managed globally by a team that supported us.

We also took the decision to take a risk and to overstock some key components for customers, which gave us an edge on the market. We may have had slightly longer lead times, but we were able to beat our competition. While our service level was lower than it used to be, and we had to make our apologies as a result, we were still better than our local competition.

Another recurring pain point for manufacturers is the continued battle for skills and talent. How has Schneider faired in this regard?

LB: We have skills issues, and they vary from country to country. We had an overall shortage of resources post-COVID and post-Brexit, now the shortages exist within specific skills. We have managed this by relocating some key tenants we have in different countries around Europe, as well as the US, India and East Asia.

We relocate them to countries where we have the demand and the lack of skills. In the last three years, we have relocated 35 employees at our Leeds site. We also develop skills locally. We are partnered with universities and colleges, where we can acquire apprentices. We have also developed an internal curriculum for our current employees that enables them to apply to become a test inspector or testing engineer.

Schneider Electric device

We do that in partnership with a college that comes in every Friday to give courses to our team. Our employees do that on top of their job, and after one or two years, they can take a level two or three course to become a test inspector or testing engineer and to progress in that area.

I understand diversity and inclusion is a key pillar of Schneider. Can you tell us what you’re doing within that space and why it’s important to the company?

LB: I started my career a little over 15 years ago. Then, it was an environment dominated by men. We have really shifted – if we look at the site today, 38% of our workforce is made up of women. In a balanced and diverse environment, we benefit not just from skills but also from the diversity of viewpoints.

We believe that we are actually stronger and more resilient when we are diverse. We also bring this to our recruitment process, to ensure there isn’t any bias. We’ve had positive feedback on this from female applicants; when we can show people that the factory setting is a diverse one, they feel comfortable joining the company.


• A mutually beneficial relationship exists between Schneider Electric and local education providers

• Formalising shopfloor feedback is a common challenge and was unsurprisingly raised. Businesses must empower people to lead a bottom up approach on this.

• Encouraging to hear diversity goals are grounded in positive business outcomes. A diverse workforce means diverse viewpoints and ideas

For more articles on the topic of Digital Transformation, click here.