Dr Steve Dowey of Sutton Tools explains his company’s approach and why becoming a ‘Smart Enough’ Factory can be a more feasible solution for all but the largest manufacturers.

There’s a lot of talk these days about Industry 4.0 and Smart Factories. However, many manufacturers with a large burden of legacy systems – and especially smaller-sized organisations – see the vision of the Smart Factory as too complicated, and therefore unachievable in the short-to-medium term.

In April 2017 our Prime Minister’s Industry 4.0 Taskforce entered into a co-operative agreement for information-sharing with Germany, including the development of global Industry 4.0 standards – with the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC) co-ordinating work in Australia. Germany’s Platform Industrie 4.0 is an admirable initiative, but many German companies are relatively large – both in terms of revenues and people – and therefore have the turnover and the economies of scale to justify complex new digital manufacturing strategies, at least on new process lines.

As an Australian manufacturing company – albeit with a global customer base – we at Sutton Tools see many of the customers with whom we work running smaller operations. This reflects OECD data that shows that around 90% of Australian manufacturers have fewer than 20 staff. This led us to consider how smaller businesses can effectively adopt an understandable and scalable digital strategy, without taking a whole-of-business approach. Our solution is the Smart Enough Factory – a model we’re following ourselves.

The Digital Triangle strategy framework

Many will be aware of the Joiner Triangle, introduced by Dr Brian Joiner, who was a student of the influential US engineer Dr W Edwards Deming. Adopted by Ford, the Joiner Triangle provides a framework for implementing quality improvement. It encompasses three key factors – Quality, Scientific Approach, and All One Team – and can be regarded in a similar vein to the Fire Triangle of Heat, Oxygen and Fuel, where if one is lacking, the fire goes out!

At Sutton we’ve built on the Joiner Triangle to create a Digital Triangle, as a strategy framework for creating the concept of a ‘Smart Enough’ Factory. We also referenced Lean Manufacturing principles in building our Digital Triangle – and that makes it as relevant to smaller organisations as global behemoths. The Lean Manufacturing discussion focuses on the application of the strategy. Lean principles include elimination of waste. The Digital Triangle strategy is an alternative model to the Reference Architectural Model Industrie 4.0 (RAMI 4.0) model.

What is ‘Smart Enough’?

I took ‘Smart Enough’ from the concept that ‘Good Enough is Good Enough’. It’s an enabling philosophy developed for SMEs to get into Industry 4.0, in that it looks for practical factory solutions based on low-cost technologies. The biggest concerns expressed about Industry 4.0 manufacturing are based around its cost, security and the skills required. Smart Enough doesn’t fix any of these roadblocks, but instead it seeks to bypass them by deploying:

  • Rapid Application Development (RAD) tools, typically low code – to address the skills issue.
  • Low-cost edge devices and sensors linked to a wireless network and deployed locally (not in the cloud) to mitigate latency and security issues.

We also deliberately focus on management data and not traditional control applications. In a Smart Enough Industry 4.0 deployment the control loop is closed by the operator or manager and not the system, mitigating the security issues that closed loop control introduces.

Whether your processes are using CNC systems or not, you can still overlay a wireless sensor network to gather the data you need from your machines in order to gain transparency and immediacy of process information (one of the goals of IoT). When a machine state changes, the event triggers a wireless message.

Combined, this offers even small operations a reliable factory visualisation tool. Simple, basic data can greatly enhance management control and productivity. You can monitor utilisation against your targets, predict whether you’ll make them then see what you need to do if you won’t.

A lightweight overlay, collecting only the management data you need to control your manufacturing operations, is a cost-effective Industry 4.0 digital strategy that even small-scale manufacturers can deploy.

Dr Steve Dowey has been Technology Manager at Sutton Tools since 2010. From 2003 he was Technical Manager at Surface Coatings Technology, a Sutton Tools subsidiary.