1976 – The revolution is uncontainable. Only 69 years after the discovery of the first fully synthetic polymer, Bakelite, plastic becomes the most used material in the world. It’s lightweight, strong, flexible, rigid, transparent, opaque, and best of all; suited to mechanical mass production. Making them (after initial tooling costs) cheap to produce. Polymers could be almost anything to anyone, so it’s little wonder they caused a manufacturing revolution.
2017 – Plastic is still the most used material in the world but a different revolution is on the horizon. A revolution affecting all sectors of manufacturing, not just plastics. A revolution that you can’t possibly fail to have heard of. Yet like so many, may not fully understand how it will affect their industry.
Different businesses, with different manufacturing methods, all encounter different problems – particularly in plastics manufacturing. It can be high volume, batch, components, turn key, injection moulding, CNC machining, thermoforming or even a combination of methods. This may lead those in the polymer industry feeling that their business is just too niche for Industry 4.0 to truly be applicable to them, leaving them reluctant to invest. However the technologies supporting the fourth industrial revolution are actually a great enabler and a fantastic future proofing investment. Increasingly, tier 1 manufacturers are expecting Industry 4.0 technology to be filtering down throughout the tiers of their supply chains to support ever leaner manufacturing processes. Failing to match their pace may result in top tier manufacturers looking elsewhere for future contracts.
Supply Chain Integration
Sharing data across the tiers from the flow of materials to the end customer demand patterns can help the supply chain improve efficiencies as a unit that one set of businesses data alone could not. Collecting and analysing data with both customers and suppliers makes identifying areas of waste much easier, therefore protecting margins.
To make an integrated supply chain a reality, you’ll need to open up your business systems to your customers and suppliers. This is of course risky as it may lead to vulnerabilities in your system and leave it open to attack. Nothing connected to the internet is ever one hundred percent secure but working with a reputable hosting company and underpinning your data and technology stack with a quality ERP system will help to make it possible.
Big Data Collection
The collection of operational data is nothing new, even as far back as the 90’s machines and controls systems were able to produce data sets and standard efficiency measures. Since then there has been 20+years of improvements to the data able to be pulled from systems and machines. Add into this improved connectivity through 4G, WiFi, and the Internet of Things (IoT) and manufacturing businesses can maximise the value of data produced for better informed and faster decisions.
Plastics manufacturers have a fantastic record of automating the shop floor while data entry and administrative tasks remain manual. The problem with this though, is that even the most capable person won’t enter data correctly one hundred percent on the time. Not only that, data entry is very time consuming and often the same data is being entered multiple times in different areas of the business. If you channel all your transactional data through a central ERP system, all your data can be uploaded automatically and ran through Business Intelligence and analytics software.
Big Data Analytics
The quality and quantity of the data produced has grown over the years but unless it is analysed, and analysed well, it is simply going to waste. Software can produce graphs, charts and numbers but sometimes it takes a person to make sense of it. Automating data entry gifts you a team perfectly suited to picking apart the data that comes out of an ERP system as they are already well clued up on how the business runs. Therefore discovering hidden patters, correlations and market trends to provide a better understanding of your customers’ needs and your current business model is a natural progression for them.
The Internet of Things
The Internet of Things isn’t really a thing – or at least, not a physical thing. It’s an abstract noun like knowledge or wisdom – individual elements create something greater than the sum of its parts. In this case the sensors on machinery and interconnectivity between the machines and an ERP system. These sensors can flag leakages or anomalies during production such as compression or melt flow rate. These problems can then be instantly and autonomously sent to the mobile device of an engineer to rectify the issue and minimize the down time or damage. If this data is aggregated over a period of time and ran through the right analytics software you’ll be able to use your insights for downtime prevention. Knowing when faults will occur, before they occur, due to the trends picked up, stored and analysed by your ERP. This higher coordination between the physical and the digital elements is called “Cyber-Physical Systems”.
The Levels of Cyber-Physical Systems Architecture
- Connection – The sensors on a connected machine or tool gather data. For example, an accelerometer gathering data on vibration.
- Conversion – Converts data into information. An accelerometer on a machine produces data but it takes an algorithm to determine what the data means and display it as a status. This analysis is performed locally (machine/tool level) to diagnose faults. E.G, Accelerometer A is vibrating at a value of X, therefore part N is loose/needs replacing.
- Cyber – Just like conversion but on a fleet level and the analysis is performed in the cloud rather than locally. Cyber analysis is greater than conversion and looks for patterns across a number of machines or tools rather than on individual assets. By analysing a fleet, the individual assets can be compared and patterns discovered. This may be that machines serviced by a particular individual all go on to have the same fault so further training is required.
- Cognitive – The cognitive level allows a machine to change its own behaviour to avoid failure and down time. It takes the information from the cyber level, converts it into health information then combines this with online monitoring to diagnose failings before they happen.
- Configuration – The machine can adjust its work load or manufacturing schedule to reduce malfunctions and downtime. The overall aim is to produce a system that is resilient and able to change its own behaviour to avoid operational disruption.
For an “on time in full” business model which many in polymer manufacturing use, investing in IoT and CPS is priceless. Businesses already have a lot invested into the physical side of plastics manufacturing; moulds and machinery are valuable assets, but they’re only returning investment when they’re working. Research conducted by Oneserve, an Exeter-based field service management company, found that machine downtime costs UK manufacturers £18-bn a year – So it’s worth keeping them up and running!
Not all businesses are OTIN, some want to produce thousands of unique and diverse products rather than thousands of the same product. Additive manufacturing (or 3D printing) makes this level of diversity completely possible. However, if additive manufacture is a path you’d like to go down, be mindful that it isn’t the be all and end all of plastics manufacturing – very rarely can a product be fully 3D printed. Size and shape of a product can often act as a hurdle to successful manufacture, but it does lend itself very well to manufacturing specific or unique components. Unit price and production time for 3D printed items is high, but for one off, prototypes or short-run production it makes perfect sense.
There is talk of 4D printing, a process that is creation of a single product with multiple materials – such a polymers and metals together. This would mean that circuitry of a product can be printed inside it rather than attached to it.
Not every business has the investment opportunities of a tier 1 OEM but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t be the most technically capable business in their field. Plastics manufacturing is already a highly automated industry so it’s in the collection of data and how it is then applied to business that can provide the competitive advantage. Establish your strengths – the reasons your customers use you and your products and enhance that to secure your place in the supply chain. Industry 4.0 has led to some fantastic manufacturing achievements but don’t let them steer your focus away from the areas that will have the most benefit to your business. Increasing efficiency, and reducing waste through better connectivity is a very safe investment.