The digital factory maps and controls all operating processes, reducing all low-value-added activities typically performed by the operator, automates the information flow, constitutes an advanced support to the decisions relevant to all business processes: product and process design; production programming and control in real time.
To reach said goals, there are some core elements that contribute at the realization of the digital factory.
Machine interconnection and intelligence
Machines must make available as much data as possible to be transferred to higher-level management systems, which must be equipped with specific functions for the analysis and optimization of production processes.
The machine itself should have its own computing capacity to be more autonomous in making decisions (for example, by avoiding potential failures), communicating to the operator the correct information at the right time (for example, by giving information about the rapid restoration of the machine in case of its unexpected stop) and to intelligently talk to the rest of the factory.
The connection of different new and used machines in a factory, in order to send and receive data and information, can raise serious objective technical difficulties:
machines often use proprietary drive electronics (such as, for example, the NC by different manufacturers) that are not designed to communicate with the outside. Difficulties increase in case of machines with many hours of operation.
Despite the difficulties, the interconnection between the machines is the fundamental basis to start a digital factory.
Only the experience of those who have always been working in the realization of machines allows for the development over the years of the technical knowledge required to overcome said difficulties.
MARES S.r.l. is a spin-off company by one of the greatest Italian tool machine manufacturers and is composed of technical personnel that has been developing machines for more than 30 years. The in-depth knowledge of both numerical controls and PLC allowed for the autonomous development of extremely complete and efficient interconnection software systems, which are not even available to the manufacturer of the electronic hardware used in the machine.
Integration of all corporate software tools
All corporate activities contribute to the realization of production. It is a mistake to imagine a digital factory that does not integrate all the activities. It is therefore essential to guarantee the bidirectional exchange of information between the different software tools used for the control of different processes: ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems; project control tools CAD, CAM, PLM (Product Life-cycle Management); etc.
All of these are heterogeneous software systems, which however must communicate together in the digital factory.
The realization of the digital factory requires that the tools dedicated to the operating management, such as MARES, be “open systems” able to communicate with anyone through modern IT standards.
It is also important the choice of the correct partner, which must be able to realize the digital factory with the proper technical solutions and the required skills.
MARES platform uses an “open system” to store data and has developed specific software systems to communicate with other management systems.
In the consortium 3DSAM, with SkillPower, it boasts the collaboration with experts in PLM and the integration of ERP management systems.
IT system protection is a further core element in the development of digital factory technology.
It is important to protect not only against external attacks but also against the accidental loss of data. Data collected are part of the corporate assets, which must be adequately protected.
The solutions to be adopted for the factory operating control must already be designed with the necessary requirements, and the correct partner must suggest solutions adopting modern technologies in place of simple software systems developed more than 20 years ago.
MARES platform uses data redundancy and “persistence” methods able to protect against the accidental loss of data.
In the consortium 3DSAM, with OCSolutions, it boasts the collaboration with IT infrastructure and cyber-security experts.
Easy and intuitive operator interface
The interface of the factory management system must be easy and intuitive. However, it is not obvious the presence of the same graphical interface on all machines and directly on the operator panel, solution that allows for the reduction of learning times and avoids incomprehensions.
The management interface must also allow for full operation of all the functions foreseen by the factory management system, controlling unauthorized accesses.
The management interface, finally, must allow for the direct communication with the operator through video messages or with other users through e-mails, depending on the type of communication chosen.
Old MES software systems on the market typically use video terminals placed near the machines and force the operator to useless and risky distractions. Since they do not provide access to all managerial functions, the operator is forced to move.
MARES platform uses a management interface that is identical to all machines (independently of the manufacturer or the control electronics adopted) and assures full operation directly on the machines.
The same management interface is also used for office applications.
Complete, modular and scalable technical solutions
It is essential for a digital factory to own a management system extremely modern and complete in terms of functions. It has to foresee advanced functions for production control, for planning and scheduling with real-time progress monitoring, for logistic flow control, with forecasting analytical capabilities and with full integration between machines.
It is important to consider management solutions owning functions that create a real added value, rather than consider a product apparently complete, but with typical functions of other systems (for example of ERP management systems). Therefore, a specialization of operating management solutions is preferable to “know-it-alls” software systems, which do “a little bit of everything”.
For example, since old MES software systems were born many years ago, when ERP systems were not as common as nowadays, they often integrate warehouse control or biling functions, which nowadays are typical functions of ERP management systems. In addition, they often do not provide functions for real-time logistic flow control integrated with the progress directly detected by the machine.
How can it be “the right material, at the right place, at the right time”?
The creation of the digital factory leads to a change process in the company, which involves monetary investments and personnel training costs. The process can be protracted over time, it is not necessary to do “everything at once”.
The technical solutions must assure the correct modularity and scalability by immediately reaching economic results with minimum investments.