The Factory of the Future is 100% Digital

Digitization continues to advance in the manufacturing sector. However, there is a risk that information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) will become even more complex and confusing. The German software and consulting service provider abat shows how things can be improved with its PLUS production control system: it is modular and flexible with everything from a single source. Its advantages are demonstrated by a German premium manufacturer in currently one of the most advanced car factories in the world.

“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”, reads a bon mot of car pioneer Henry Ford from 1909 about the legendary Model T. Variety was frowned upon as it would have hindered Ford’s vision of efficient assembly line production. Today, everything is different: Some car models offer several million configuration variants; it is quite unlikely that two identical vehicles will ever meet on the road. This would not be possible without stable and “sophisticated” processes and digitization. Digitization helps to maintain an overview amidst the diversity and guarantees the efficiency of mass production even with batch size 1 (one-off production). It increases process quality, stability, and the quality of the products through seamless tracking of each individual production step even years later, and it minimizes unforeseen prohibitive expensive production stops. Digitization makes ever-shorter innovation cycles possible. A model change every seven years? That was once the case.

Digitization is not an end in itself; it must always be measured against specific goals, in terms of productivity, costs, quality, or downtimes. The automotive industry is a good example of this: Manufacturers are at different stages and are pursuing different concepts in digitization. Anyone looking for fully digital production will find what they are looking for primarily in Germany, although there are differences there as well.

 

Ever more efficient – but also ever more complex?

Benchmarks are set by a German premium manufacturer that commissioned a new production line that has made headlines far beyond its borders and is considered state of the art in the industry. What makes this factory so unique? It is the innovative production concept and production control, which meets all three main requirements of discrete manufacturing – process and quality improvement, cost reduction, and production flexibility – in such a way that an improvement in one aspect is not at the expense of the other two. This has been attempted before, quite successfully, but with the disadvantage that the IT and OT landscape only became more complex and confusing with each advance.

The Manufacturing Execution System (MES) PLUS from abat makes a radical cut here. It makes things simpler, not more complex, because it enables end-to-end control of manufacturing processes while reducing manufacturing complexity. Instead of operating and maintaining countless systems, PLUS consolidates the entire manufacturing landscape – across production sites worldwide – into a single system. PLUS is an integrated production control solution that guides manufacturing and production processes, as well as handling quality management end-to-end across production. Thanks to its service-oriented architecture, PLUS enables maximum standardization on one hand and individualization on the other. This means that all trade and site-specific processes throughout the entire production process can be covered by the same software – in automotive production, for example, from the body shop to delivery. All information on quality, processes, deadlines, or parts is seamlessly documented.

 

Flexible through modules – but from a single source

One for all – that sounds like a rigid monolith that allows little flexibility. But the opposite is the case. The system is modular and very flexible, which allows for many different production scenarios. Both the modules themselves and PLUS as a whole make it possible to map interrelated business processes from numerous individual services, thus reducing complexity.

The services can be used either directly in the backend or as microservices in the cloud. New or optimized business processes draw on existing modules. This guarantees simple and fast process adaptation – even across locations. Due to the standardization and simple parameterization, the costs for maintenance and servicing are significantly lower compared to the in-house development of such a system. This pays off when changes in manufacturing processes are necessary that need to be implemented without downtime in production. In view of the ever-shorter innovation cycles, this is a decisive competitive advantage.

 

The paperless factory

One issue that has always been important in automotive factories is the avoidance of waste. This principle goes back to Taiichi Ohno, the inventor of the Toyota Production System. In the 1970s, Ohno sought to reduce waiting times, walking distances, and inventory levels. At that time, the sustainable use of raw materials was not yet a focus. Today in times of raw material scarcity and climate change, that has changed. Here, too, the production of this German premium manufacturer sets standards. One example: at many of this company’s sites, processes are paperless. This is a novelty because elsewhere in automotive production, many process steps are still controlled with paper and documented on paper. There, the assemblers at each station must look at a slip to see what needs to be done, document the quality information, and mark the safety-relevant tasks as completed. In the wake of increasing digitization, this is no longer up to date. With paper, very little data can be collected about the production process and the product, thus quality assurance and a continuous improvement process are only possible to a limited extent. In addition, paper no longer meets today’s requirements for process reliability, as it can get lost or become illegible.

In the paperless factory, on the other hand, workers use tablets to inform themselves about the respective work steps and document the process and quality data. The goals of the paperless factory are to make things easier for employees, collect valuable insights along the process chain for continuous improvement and predictive analytics, more stable processes, higher quality, and shorter throughput times. The environment also benefits: In the manufacturer’s German plants alone, digitization saves around 52 tons of paper per year, the equivalent of about 4,000 square meters of forest.

 

Digital twin in real-time

But banishing paper is just the beginning. A modern tracking system detects the position of vehicles and tools in real-time and creates an always up-to-date virtual image of the factory. The tracking system ensures that the right information is available at each station for the respective work step. A blue signal light indicates which tool has been released for a particular work step. This ensures that the right work steps can only take place at the right place and at the right time.

Successful implementation of the paperless factory requires a well-thought-out combination of agile project methods, intelligent software solutions, and targeted change management. The agile methodology Scrum offered the optimal platform in which the business department, IT, and abat acted together in a flexible and goal-oriented manner. Every few weeks, the revised software was installed and used productively directly in the plant. The advantage is that workers in production are introduced to the digitalization of the process steps in small increments. They are not confronted overnight only with tablets and smartphones, i.e. new and unfamiliar end devices, but they can experience and get to know the new technology at individual stations. The end-users were involved in the development process and were able to express their wishes and needs regarding the functionality and design. After all, only the employee on the shop floor knows exactly which functionality and design will add the most value to his or her work. In this way, the company not only ensures that the stations are easy for employees to operate but also increases acceptance of new solutions.

Interview

“HPE NonStop is the ideal basis for our PLUS software”.

Peter Grendel, member of the board of abat AG and managing director of abat St. Ingbert.

 

PLUS from abat runs on HPE NonStop. Why did you decide on this?

Our customers, such as those in the automotive industry, have high requirements for reliability and availability in critical areas of production. HPE NonStop is the ideal basis for our PLUS software because it is powerful and very adaptable. For example, it offers a hardware-independent Virtualized NonStop, extensive tools for DevOps, standardized development environments, and modern, open tool support for easy programming and integration. PLUS on HPE NonStop keeps production at the forefront of innovation and has had no unplanned downtime in the last 15 years.

 

abat will be at the HPE Discover 2022 edge-to-cloud conference June 28-30 in Las Vegas. What are you showing visitors there?

We’ll be showing PLUS as well as a demo created specifically for the event that will run on a NonStop virtual system. The demo consists of two parts. The first part is a real dialog based on PLUS widgets displayed on screen and connected to the NonStop system. It simulates how each widget displays vehicle-related information provided by PLUS. Using the widgets, a worker can check if a component and the vehicle belong together, view vehicle properties, check for errors, and more. These widgets are used by our customers in automotive manufacturing to reduce paper consumption in the factory.

 

And the second part of the demo?

That’s where we show one using virtual reality in PLUS on an assembly line. In the VR session, the user can use PLUS to work like a real employee on the assembly line. The user sees and acts virtually with the same dialog that is on the screen in the first part of the demo. Of course, PLUS has many more features that are not part of the demos. Anyone who would like to learn about these functions is welcome to contact us at HPE Discover – we will make time for every visitor.

 

How does abat see the future of digital manufacturing?

We believe that increasingly, topics such as the full connectivity of the factory through the Internet of Things will be a strong differentiator in the market. AI and predictive manufacturing are also aspects that will have a massive impact in holistic process improvement starting with the customer and ending with the finished product. The next few years will show how strongly neural networks and big data will optimize the manufacturing process over the entire life cycle.

 

 

About abat

The abat Group, is an SAP service provider, innovative software developer, and provider of complete solutions for software-supported process optimization – primarily for the core industries of automotive and discrete manufacturing as well as in logistics processes and production control. More than 800 employees at several German and international locations generated sales of approximately 80 million euros in 2021. The abat Group’s customers include Audi, BMW, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bosch, Brose, DHL, Ineos, MAN, Mercedes-Benz, nobilia, Porsche, Tchibo, thyssenkrupp, and Volkswagen.

At the St. Ingbert site, abat employs experts for digital high-availability solutions for production control in the complex manufacturing industry. The portfolio includes xReality, artificial intelligence, app and software development, as well as cloud services, among others. In addition to software development and implementation, abat provides rollout and full support for all their products.

 

Author


  • Peter Grendel is the CEO and founder of abat+ GmbH and a Board member of the abat Group. Before that, he worked as a Vice President Technical Account Management at SAP and as Global Account Manager at Oracle Corporation.