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Digital Twin
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How do we become faster, more productive, more agile? How do we achieve faultless quality and meet increasingly individual demands? The questions about the future of the manufacturing industry are well known. Most people spend a lot of time thinking about what is going to change. But the questions of why and how things are going to change should come first – then the answer to what is going to change becomes pretty clear.

During this series of blog posts, rather than focusing on specific technical solutions, I want to talk about a number of use cases that illustrate the advantages that every manufacturer can benefit from.

We have a vision of an intelligent factory

This vision entails the complex interaction between an entirely digital process, the products it produces as well as vast amounts of process data. This is much more than simply adding some fancy new devices and automating a process here and there. The aim is to boost productivity through digitalization even after normal programs have reached their limits. It is a wholly different digital enterprise, which requires a new digital mindset and approach.

Beyond the digital factory

Our mission is to develop a totally agile factory network. Agile, of course, means flexible and adaptable, but it is actually much more than that.

The factory network is location-independent, thanks to a virtual collaboration platform. It also evolves and updates continuously through life-long learning. Mobility of equipment and materials, and the modular nature of production systems and facilities help ensure easy scalability, as does the use of standard parameters and interfaces. As the network is cloud-based, data and analytics can be accessed from anywhere at any time from the common collaboration platform, which also comes with state-of-the-art data security.

People rarely need to intervene – occasionally to make certain decisions or because a particular situation has not been replicated in the digital twin.

As this type of digitalization develops – especially in combination with the automation or robotization of administrative processes – it will help provide ideas for new areas of business, which are now only beginning to emerge.

Understanding the challenge

At the heart of this enterprise is technology that breaks down established structures – especially when combined with insights gained from data analytics and increasingly powerful software.

It is vital to understand, however, that creating an accurate digital twin of an entire ecosystem – encompassing product, process and performance – is a far bigger challenge for an automated/robotized manufacturing plant than it is for, let’s say, the behavior of customers in a book store. The algorithms require a profound understanding of the processes and an enormous number of iteration loops before the data begins to provide valuable insight. This is time-consuming, costly and comes with its own risks.

Looking ahead into the future

Despite the challenges, we’re convinced that our roadmap is the way forward to future-oriented solutions for our plants and those of our customers. By 2025, we envisage digital factories, connected with each other and with their suppliers, optimized through the digital twin and data analytics, producing competitively even in high-cost locations and setting the benchmark for efficient process automation and digitalization.

We’ve divided our roadmap into five sections:

  • Vertical integration
  • Horizontal integration
  • IoT, which is largely focused on the data lake and associated analytics
  • Disruptive technology, i.e. LWR and cobots, driverless transportation systems
  • Last but not least, our people and methods, which tackles new forms of working

Process improvements take time to have an effect. In two or three years, we’ll see automation and robotization, followed by an increasing number of digitalization solutions, which in turn influence process planning and logistics.

We live the Digital Enterprise in our own facilities around the world

We have factories in Germany, China and the United States. That said, our facility in Amberg accounts for the lion’s share of our global production. But no matter where our colleagues work, we’re united by one vision: perfection for our customers.

At the factory, we manufacture our own products, like SIMATIC controllers, in largely automated and digitized production processes. In Amberg, we change the work plans for our digitalized production approximately 5,000 times a year. This lets us manufacture more than 120 product variations in a single day. And we achieve an output of one product per second.

Customers are placing more value on customized products. On the other hand, they don’t want to pay the price of single-unit production. Therefore, companies need to straddle the divide between mass production and customized production. The solution is mass customization. That’s what allows them to survive in an increasingly volatile market.

In Amberg we’ve also adapted to a volatile market and customer-specific requirements. As a result, we’re making 350 changeovers in our production system daily, so we can flexibly manufacture our portfolio of 1,200 products.

Another important aspect is quality. Therefore, our vision – as you’ll recall, because I just mentioned it – is perfection for our customers. We achieve this goal with a cohesive quality loop and products that can be tracked. This isn't just ideal for assuring high quality; it’s essential if you need to fulfill legal requirements.

As part of our approach, we collect and evaluate 50 million process and product data points per day, which allows us to improve our quality on a step-by-step basis.

Efficiency is another major challenge for companies. For one thing, as manufacturing enterprises we want to use the least amount of resources possible. For that reason alone, it pays to closely watch your energy consumption and many other factors. And for another thing, environmentally friendly production that conserves resources and preserves our environment is increasingly important to our customers.

You’ll need to face some critical challenges and meet certain requirements if you want to make your production operations fit for the future.

In addition, companies already have resources that should be utilized in the best possible way: their own capacities. Your employees, your machinery, and all the other elements of your company – digitalization can help you derive the greatest possible benefit from all of them. I’ll be reporting on those during this series.

Don’t miss our next blog post about predictive maintenance for a PCB milling spindle at our Amberg plant.

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