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Smart factories are revolutionizing the way things are made

Yamazaki Mazak has attached "SmartBoxes" to each of the 50 production machines at its plant in the U.S. state of Kentucky.

TOKYO   Manufacturers are melding hardware and computing in ways that are nothing short of revolutionary. The Germans have even coined a term for it -- Industry 4.0.

     Welcome to the fourth industrial revolution.

     The Industry 4.0 concept was pioneered and fleshed out in Germany and the U.S. Its enthusiastic embrace of the Internet of Things -- putting chips and software in just about anything -- and interconnectivity promises to bring massive leaps in productivity.

     Japanese manufacturers are also warming to the idea. Here, we look at four companies that are overhauling the way they collect and connect information, aiming for dramatic innovations in the process.

ONE FOR ALL   In November last year, machine tool maker Yamazaki Mazak attached a special device to each of the 50 production machines at its factory in the U.S. state of Kentucky. The facility manufactures turning and milling machines for the aerospace and automotive industries.

     The device, developed in collaboration with U.S. networking equipment giant Cisco Systems, automatically collects numerical data via various sensors. Called a SmartBox, it records information about when the machine starts and stops each process, takes readings after a process is completed, and even logs such details as the pH of the coolant, which can affect the processing conditions.

     Linking the machines was not easy because they did not all come from the same manufacturer, and different companies use different control languages and communication protocols. Yamazaki Mazak overcame that hurdle by using MTConnect, an open industry standard developed in the U.S. and supported by machine tool makers from the U.S., Japan and Europe.

     Yamazaki Mazak now also uses SmartBoxes to collect data on temperature and vibrations when the spindle units of completed products are tested at the Kentucky factory. Previously, the process of collecting and analyzing test data was completely separate from that for production. But now that all the data is gathered by SmartBoxes, each and every factory process has essentially been integrated, making it easier to spot problems.

     The change has also enabled the company to more easily identify and fix production bottlenecks, boosting the operating rates of the machinery by about 10%.

     This year, Yamazaki Mazak plans to install SmartBoxes throughout its main Japanese factory, in Oguchi, Aichi Prefecture. The plant's chief, Masaharu Hotta, has high hopes for Industry 4.0. Enhanced interconnectivity allows manufacturers to "determine, through analysis, the optimal conditions for each process, and detect incipient problems before they force machines to stop."

     Ultimately, the company plans to link the Oguchi factory with not only the Kentucky plant, but also its other domestic and overseas factories. The idea is to create a network where the operating conditions at any given factory can be determined from any location.

     As a first step, the company is testing a system under which employees can use smartphones to check the operating status of machines equipped with SmartBoxes at the Oguchi factory.

     "In the future, account executives will be able to check the production status of specific items and even show their customers images captured by webcams in the factory," Hotta said.

FRIENDLY SPIES   About two years ago, Ricoh Industry attached scores of cameras to the ceiling and around the production equipment of the automated assembly lines at its main factory for office equipment in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture.

A small camera, foreground, is trained on production machinery at Ricoh Industry's headquarters factory in Kanagawa Prefecture.

     Some of the cameras are trained on industrial robots, while others capture the actions of workers or are focused on passageways. But the cameras are not there for security or quality-control purposes.

     Rather, their job is to capture video and still images of every nook and cranny of the factory floor for the purpose of analyzing the way workers move and machinery operates. By doing this, the Ricoh subsidiary can better identify where and when bottlenecks arise. It also helps the company gauge how busy the workers are in a given part of the plant and make any adjustments, if necessary, to improve efficiency.

     For example, a factory supervisor may view a feed and determine that there are too many workers on a given production line. The next day, the supervisor could assign fewer people to the line. Also, by being able to see how many workers are on a line, the manager can optimize where they are positioned.

     The Atsugi factory complements that information with data collected from communications equipment and various sensors. By analyzing all the data together, Ricoh Industry can more easily detect when operations are not running smoothly and anticipate problems before they arise.
     The company is continually honing the process. It is still trying to figure out, for instance, the best places to put cameras and better ways to collect data.

     "Not even 10% of the data we gather has been put to effective use in terms of finding ways to improve production," admitted Masaki Sekizawa, an executive officer. "We should be collecting even more information."

     Eventually, Ricoh Industry hopes to link the data gathered in the factory with information on sales, inventory and procurement, creating an environment conducive to production improvements and increased flexibility.

     "As we proceed with small-lot production of a wide variety of products, we are reaching the limit in terms of the improvements in productivity we can ask of people," Sekizawa noted.

     The company expects its competitive edge to become sharper as the Atsugi factory learns how to better collect and analyze data. "There is a growing need for factory automation combining cameras and office systems," said Ricoh President Zenji Miura.

     The chief of the production information team at Panasonic Ecology Systems' main factory in Kasugai, Aichi Prefecture, marveled at the improvements he has seen there. "Boxes of parts used to be stacked floor to ceiling," Tomohide Yoshii said. "Now you can see the floor!"

Bar codes keep track of inventory at the Kasugai plant of Panasonic Ecology Systems.

     The company manufactures fans and other air-moving equipment. It consolidated fan production at the Kasugai plant four years ago as part of parent company Panasonic's domestic reorganization.

      The change meant Yoshii and his co-workers were suddenly faced with a huge increase in production items. The number of different products the factory made in a year more than doubled to 2,030 items, and some 1,500 different parts had to be managed on an average day.

     Fan blades look alike at first glance, but the different types of blades attach to different kinds of fans, which are made on different production lines. The Kasugai plant makes some of the blades, but affiliates and subcontractors make others, and all of them need to be assigned to the correct fan products on the correct production lines.

     As if suddenly having to deal with over twice as many products was not difficult enough, another challenge for the factory was getting the workforce up to speed. When output was consolidated, workers from the other factories were also transferred over, and they came with varying skillsets and levels of experience. To keep things running smoothly, they needed a way to visualize what needed to be made and how.

     To deal with this situation, Panasonic Ecology Systems shelved its traditional make-to-stock strategy and adopted a make-to-order method of production. It also created a network linking the Kasugai plant with three other group factories that manufacture parts and centralized the management of production information.

     By sharing information in real time among these four sites about orders, inventories and quality inspection, Panasonic Ecology Systems can now optimize its production volumes. Parts sit in inventory for an average of just seven days now, instead of the previous three weeks, and inventory volume has been slashed by about 20%.

     "Now that the technologies used for manufacturing fans has fully matured, it is hard for companies to differentiate themselves," said production planning manager Yoshiyuki Nagai. In a market like this, the ability to efficiently manage the mountain of parts produced across several factories is one way to gain an edge.

     The Kasugai plant was built in 1969 and uses a lot of old machinery. Introducing a communications protocol that links all the machines together is difficult, so some information still needs to be transferred manually. The plant has introduced a digital version of the "kanban" just-in-time production system made famous by Toyota Motor, and bar codes are affixed to every box of parts. These bar codes convey the production plans, describing which parts belong to which items and when they are to be used in the production process.

     By reading these bar codes, all workers, regardless of their respective skillsets, can get a clear picture of the necessary production procedures. Even old factories, where it can be hard to introduce the latest networking equipment, can be innovative when such measures -- basically an analog version of the Internet of Things -- are introduced.

     Panasonic Ecology Systems plans to expand this system to its overseas plants, including a factory in Mexico slated to open in 2016.

     The company is phasing out the "kaizen" practice of continuous improvement at factories and in production processes, and replacing it with Industry 4.0 concepts. In doing so, it is bringing transparency to factory operations and linking factories globally.

OPEN AND SECURE   Changes are also afoot at midsize heavy machinery maker Takeuchi Mfg. The plant it is building for small construction equipment at its headquarters in Sakaki, Nagano Prefecture, will be installed with advanced network technology.     

Takeuchi Manufacturing will introduce an open, secure SDN network at this plant it is building in Nagano Prefecture.

     The system will use equipment made by NEC and a technology known as software-defined networking, in which software controls communications. With SDN, reconfiguring the network architecture is a simple matter of writing new code, so the technology has garnered increasing attention as the Internet of Things gains traction.

     SDN can be used in a variety of ways, but Takeuchi has three main purposes in mind: the exchange of production information among factory machinery; the sharing of information -- via wireless terminals -- by factory workers with the head office and with machinery; and the exchange of information about operations among office computers.

     The three activities typically require the installation of three separate networks. But that is costly, especially given that more networks may be needed at some point.

     In an SDN network, the devices are connected physically but separated virtually, making the system highly scalable.

     Another advantage of SDN technology is its security. If a breakdown occurs along one route, the SDN controllers in the various plant buildings will automatically create a detour, meaning production activity is not affected. SDN also lowers the risks of viral infections when the network is linked to business partners and customers.

     "The network is vital to the factory, and with this setup, the factory will not grind to a halt if something happens," said Kazunari Miyazawa, Takeuchi Mfg.'s information systems manager. He envisions an open and secure plant with an advanced network architecture that enables even sales companies outside Japan to check on the state of production in real time.

     The company is also considering introducing SDN technology at its metal parts factory in Nagano Prefecture and linking the plant to the headquarters factory to make production more efficient.

     Innovation in manufacturing is growing increasingly dependent on interconnectivity in factories. The explosion in the use of sensors and other connected devices has brought with it a surge in the amount and variety of data being circulated and analyzed. This demands open, secure networks that are easy to operate.

     Germany is busy developing Industry 4.0 standards that will enable the exchange of data regardless of what types of information systems and production equipment a factory uses.
     In this wired and interconnected era, where proprietary specifications are losing their meaning on the manufacturing floor, factory equipment makers will need to adjust their strategies.


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