Skip to main content

Digitising the production line

(Image credit: Image Credit: MNBB Studio / Shutterstock)

Manufacturing is in the middle of a dramatic transformation that will profoundly alter plant floor operations over the next five years. In order to accommodate the customer demand for product personalisation, choice has become the prerequisite for purchase. To meet that challenge, every stage of the manufacturing process is about to become digitally connected. However, our research finds the sector has a long way to go before fully connected factories become a feature of modern industry.     

The manufacturers we surveyed pledged to increase investment in a range of enterprise technologies from barcode, to wearables, to Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and RFID. Two thirds of companies are still using pen and paper to record and track their operations.    

But what does that mean for Industry 4.0, and how can a manufacturer make the leap from pen and paper to wearables, augmented reality (AR) and robotics? Will there always be a role for low-tech tools in a high-tech environment? If companies transition from pen and paper before 2022, this shift could make the industry in the UK unrecognisable in just five years time.

The Manufacturing Vision Study set out to understand how the manufacturing landscape will change and the drivers behind it and to understand the digital transformation journey towards a fully connected factory. Although manufacturers pledged to increase their investment, almost half say the complexity of these technologies (49%) is a barrier to achieving a fully connected factory, in addition to budget constraints (43%) and integration with legacy systems (39%).     

Manufacturers are starting to realise the benefits technology can bring to the factory floor and its supply chain. According to the study, firms across EMEA are set to increase investment in a host of new technologies to bring goods to market faster, to address burgeoning supply chain complexity driven by product variety, and to improve connectivity throughout their facilities.  

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is at the heart of this transformation. Manufacturers are welcoming a new era of productivity by enhancing Industry 4.0, powered by IIoT. Workers are using a combination of barcode technology to provide a digital voice to assets people and inventory, radio-frequency identification (RFID), wearables, automated systems, and other emerging technologies to monitor the physical processes of the plant and enable companies to make decentralised decisions, boosting output.    

Real-time monitoring across the entire manufacturing process is predicted to increase 21% by 2022.  

An example of this is placing more barcode scanning points across the production process as activities are undertaken or parts are consumed to form an assembly. This is simple to execute as they become standard operating practice and afford the business incredible visibility. Time to undertake activities and parts consumed are verified at the point of assembly rather than at a quality check point before shipment, to name just two. Manufacturing is in the midst of managing huge increases in product variety to accommodate the consumers’ quest for personalisation. Hence, quality management was the number one concern – 58% for all our study respondents. 

The Role of Wearables  

As the manufacturing industry takes a step closer toward automation, wearables will start to play an even greater role in operations. Two in five manufacturers have vowed to increase capital investment in wearable technology by 2022 but, relatively speaking, wearables are still in their infancy.

Wearables are practical in scenarios where looking up data is accompanied by the need to not take your eyes or hands off the activity in play to view data / information at the same time. Manufacturers say they will increase the deployment of wearable technology by 15% over the next five years and this is because they want to increase real-time monitoring across production. Companies say monitoring will rise from 7% to 28% in order to improve quality assurance. Wearables will also offer opportunities to improve safety and increase productivity on the plant floor, even monitoring a worker’s health and alerting supervisors if issues arise that could be considered a hazard. Employees equipped with video camera glasses can also record what’s happening on the production line to track efficiency and promote real time adjustments.  

The Power of IIoT    

The glue that binds all these technologies together is IIoT, which enables data capture across various operations such as the process time planned versus actual time for individual work cells, machine performance and inventory consumption and location. This makes data immediately available to plant floor managers and suppliers, keeps production in check and offers opportunity for operational performance.    

Today, 27% of manufacturing staff are collecting data from production, supply chain and workers, but the data is stored in silos meaning there are few opportunities to generate insights. In the future, that number is expected to drop to 19 percent by 2022, signalling the importance of access to this type of critical data to improve productivity and streamline operations.   

Companies are aware that IIoT is something they need to adopt but, strangely, getting executive buy-in or estimating ROI for making such investments do not rank high among firms’ concerns. Of those surveyed, only 29 percent said that determining ROI is a barrier to adoption.    

Manufacturers are focusing less on keeping materials on-hand and depending more on suppliers to provide goods on-demand.  Currently, 22.8% of those surveyed require suppliers to provide JIT shipment notifications. This is anticipated to increase in the next five years with 32% of manufacturers expecting JIT notifications. 

Tuning in to RFID    

The use of RFID plays an important role in manufacturing operations. Increasingly, manufacturers are adding RFID alongside existing barcode technologies to provide a more connected plant floor. IIoT is at the heart of this and already beginning to transform manufacturing. Companies are increasing their use of RFID as a powerful tool to convert physical materials into digital assets that are easy to track in real-time on the plant floor.   

RFID first gained traction when retailers began requiring manufacturers to tag all cases and pallets with RFID tags. For retailers, RFID tags helped them save on staff time to book in and locate merchandise. For goods inward activity, no longer did forklift drivers have to get off the truck to count each individual item on a pallet and log this information manually into their inventory management system - the information on the RFID tag had all the data they needed and once scanned, can book the items onto the Inventory system in a second.   

Looking ahead, RFID will continue to be popular across manufacturing since its tags are capable of handling more information than just what’s on a pallet. To illustrate, an RFID tag can contain work instructions, bill of materials and tracking numbers. Workers can use this information to better move an item through production. RFID can also be used to reconcile the Bill of Materials and parts consumed, improving order accuracy which is crucial for suppliers and offers even greater traceability.  

Transforming operations  

I predict our attachment to pen and paper will be drastically reduced in five years’ time. This is because of the emergence of these new and already popular technologies that enable unprecedented visibility and the ability to communicate more effectively with our new co-workers and machines.     

A connected plant floor has become a necessity for ensuring high-quality products. And with rising customer demands for product variety, transforming operations is no longer something that any manufacturer can ignore if they want to remain competitive in an ever-changing environment.     

For more information, visit our website.    

David Stain, Senior Manager Manufacturing EMEA, Zebra Technologies 

Image Credit: MNBB Studio / Shutterstock

David Stain
David Stain is the EMEA Vertical Marketing Manager for Manufacturing and Field Mobility. He is responsible for Go-To- Market strategy and execution for these industries.