Is the UK set for ‘smart manufacturing’? Connected Thinking visited Siemens’ UK factory to find out more about the shift towards Industry 4.0

As UK industry prepares to embrace the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), or Industry 4.0, organisations are looking for guidance on what new technology will bring to their business and how to put it in place. According to the manufacturers’ organisation Make UK (formerly EEF), 61% of UK manufacturers believe that using digital technologies could boost their productivity, and 80% say 4IR will be a business reality by 2025[1].
Despite this, finding working examples of ‘smart factories’ is not easy – the reality is that while awareness of connected devices, big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics is growing, their use is not widespread. At the Siemens factory in Congleton, however, you will see a manufacturer that is beginning to push the boundaries of technology and is looking to take other organisations with it on the digital journey.
“The Siemens approach to digitising their factory is underpinned by a robust world class manufacturing culture,” explains Richard Jeffers, Director for Industrial Solutions at RS Components. “They are applying lean manufacturing with rigour and discipline and then looking for opportunities to further improve through the application of technology”.
With lean working practices for world-class manufacturing already in place, Siemens have already removed most waste meaning that the company will not simply digitise waste when it embraces new technology. Already on the Congleton production line, automated robots are performing some of the repetitive manual tasks that, until recently, humans carried out. These humans aren’t out of a job, however; they’ve simply been moved to other roles where they can add more value.
The increased demand for customised products means that production lines and workspaces often need to be reconfigured. This is something that can now be done quickly and easily via the onsite Virtual Reality Cave. Here, 3D models of the plant can be chopped and changed and approved in a fraction of the time it used to take using cardboard models.
“Adoption of this technology – or any change for that matter – is as much about tackling culture and attitudes as it is about technological innovation”Anil Thomas, Head of Business Operations and Strategy, Siemens
Improving MRO
Technology is driving increased productivity and capacity, but how can it beneficially impact maintenance, repair and operations (MRO)? With hundreds of machines working day and night, the company employs 19 maintenance engineers to carry out maintenance and minimise downtime. MTO Production and Maintenance Manager David Reynolds is always looking for innovations to help his team keep plant assets at optimum condition.
“We monitor our machinery to see if it’s in an ‘alarm state’, which is when something has been picked up that isn’t quite right, but not necessarily down” he explains. “This data monitoring can be done by a human or we can set up automated alerts. It is a first step towards predictive maintenance: it isn’t full condition monitoring, which looks at temperature, vibration and other factors
“This lets us look at the data from the machines and think about how we could use it to make improvements and add value to the business.”
Siemens expects the demand for greater customisation in products to increase, which would require greater flexibility from its machines. The knock-on effect, according to Reynolds, will be more maintenance, which could open the door to AI.
“By looking at usage data and implementing condition monitoring, it is possible to manage this flexibility effectively to avoid unplanned maintenance and downtime,” says Reynolds. “In practice, further tests will need to be done to look at the data point from where there’s a potential failure to the point of where machines actually fail, so that we understand functional performance  levels.
“You can’t realistically operate on the basis that every time a sensor indicates a tolerance breach an investigation is performed – there would be alerts going off too frequently and you only have so many engineers,” he adds. “Instead, we want a system where we have data providing an insight, so we know the priority list of maintenance tasks, be able to build algorithms to set tolerance levels and can pick up repairs in suitable time before the machines fail.”
“We pilot new technology on our critical machines – that presents a risk because they are key devices but it also brings the biggest reward when you get it right”David Reynolds, Head of MTO Production and Maintenance Manager, Siemens
Adopting innovation
There is a pragmatic approach towards adopting innovation. Reynolds is working towards ‘connecting’ machines on the factory floor, but this a journey and involves a series of pilots and tests to put innovation (and the investment behind it) where it will have the greatest impact.
“We pilot new technology on our critical machines – the ones that do the most work and would cause the biggest productivity issues if they were to go down,” says Reynolds. “In some ways that presents a risk because they are key devices but it also brings the biggest reward when you get it right.”
There’s no doubt that Siemens seems to be getting its maintenance right in recent years, as its data confirms. The trend in reactive maintenance is heading sharply downwards with the average amount of downtime on equipment, for example in one value stream, reducing from an average of slightly under 14 hours per month in 2016/17 to just under six hours in April 2018.
The fact that the company is happy to share this data is symbolic of its willingness for increased transparency. Anil Thomas, Head of Business Operations and Strategy at Siemens, explains that collaboration is crucial to driving change. “They say that knowledge is power, but these days knowledge is only powerful if you share it,” he explains. “There can be a tendency to keep knowledge and expertise strictly within a business. But we need a connected world so that people can learn from each other, for their mutual benefit.”
Numerous businesses – customers, suppliers and companies in different fields – have been invited to visit the factory and discuss common issues. Data relating to performance, productivity, maintenance and others is openly displayed on the shop floor for visitors and employees to see.
Part of this desire for openness is an acknowledgment that people are often the main stumbling block when it comes to adopting new ways of working. “Much of the technology we need for Industry 4.0 is already available right now,” says Thomas. “But adoption of this technology – or any change for that matter – is as much about tackling culture and attitudes as it is about technological innovation.
“I think we will see experimental, small increments within businesses as they test, adapt and then adopt new technology and new ways of working.”
In fact, Thomas spells out the four key principles around adoption of change as people, culture, process and technology in that order. While technology enables change, he believes “the change has to be in hearts and minds of people, it has to start there”.
The message, then, is that the factory of the future is coming, but the pace may be slow at first. However, with organisations such as Siemens pushing the boundaries and sharing its learnings, that pace should start to pick up as 4IR becomes a reality.