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How medium-sized companies intelligently control manufacturing

Smart Factory with Shop Floor Integration

How medium-sized companies intelligently control manufacturing

By: Claudia Ballhause, IT journalist for Wordfinder

Digitalized processes make the workflow leaner, faster and more transparent. This applies to all areas of work, but especially to production. Intelligent manufacturing is no longer just a buzzword for large corporations. Medium-sized companies in particular benefit from the cost and flexibility advantages that arise from the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and the use of Big Data.

Machines that independently signal when they need material replenishment. The feed of a machine tool that automatically adapts to the workpiece being processed. Today, modern machines react to circumstances partly on their own, without human intervention. This type of intelligent manufacturing is made possible by a completely networked factory – Smart Factory – in which sensors collect data and provide it in real time.

Monitoring quality during production with networked machines

"Machines networked in this way make it possible to monitor quality throughout the entire manufacturing process. Of course, the central prerequisite for intelligent manufacturing is that the material is available at the right time, in the right quantity, and in the right place. This planning makes production sustainable, optimized and demand-driven," says Franz Stieber, Senior Sales Engineer, Systems & IIoT at the software manufacturer GIB. Together with the parent company ifm electronic in Essen, GIB is working on end-to-end software solutions that integrate the physics of the production level into the digitalized business process level.

Connecting production and ERP systems with vertical digitization

Because it is precisely this connection between IT and OT (Operations Technology) that many companies lack in order to really implement a Smart Factory. If vertical digitization, i.e. the connection of the production level to the ERP systems, is explicitly desired today, things looked very different in the third industrial revolution in the 1970s. "For fear of viruses and Trojans that could sneak in and paralyze production, there was a strict separation between the operations control systems of Operations Technology and Information Technology," explains Stieber. The aim now is to remove this separation, but of course the justified concerns about data security should not be neglected in the process. New security standards ensure this.

In recent years, the vision of smart manufacturing has been driven in particular by the Industrie 4.0 key technology Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). The sensors on machines, instruments and production facilities create the necessary data basis for automation and self-learning machines. End-to-end data processing from the sensor to the ERP system allows the physical and digital worlds to merge. Stieber: "A key advantage of sensors and the data they collect is that information is available across all areas and without delay, and the sensors feed AI-based systems with the necessary data, among other things. Big Data technologies and applications play an essential role in processing this information."

Minimize investment costs by upgrading existing machines

There are numerous advantages associated with the idea of smart manufacturing, such as improved operational efficiency, faster process implementation, cost reductions in production and the realization of new business models. Medium-sized companies in particular can benefit from this, but often still shy away from the acquisition costs for complete equipment with sensors and modern software. However, it is often sufficient and significantly cheaper to upgrade older existing systems. Even sensors that already exist in production can usually be integrated into a holistic solution concept. This is easiest with IO-Link sensors. The IO-Link community has more than 215 manufacturers worldwide who have agreed on a uniform format. A lot of information is directly available digitally and can be processed in IT systems in this way.  

"Payback period of the projects is very manageable"

"In general, the payback period of the projects is manageable. Of course, investments have to be made to achieve smart manufacturing. But afterwards, costs are saved and many other benefits such as flexibility and reliability are gained," Stieber knows. For him, the benefits, especially for medium-sized companies, are clearly in the foreground. Digitalization eliminates, for example, the enormous coordination effort of all parties involved for demand-oriented production control. Technical and process-related innovations, including completely new business ideas, are also much easier to implement.

When companies have already established fully automated manufacturing, they often see the step to smart manufacturing as unnecessary. The key difference here is how the Smart Factory deals with disruptions. In fully automated production, manual control and plan adjustments are necessary in the event of an unforeseen event. The Smart Factory, on the other hand, reorganizes itself without human intervention and automatically adjusts to unforeseen events. This is made possible by Shop Floor Integration, with which sensor messages about the status of systems, material consumption or necessary maintenance work are processed contextually, so that follow-up processes are triggered in the ERP, for example SAP. These include, for example, the procurement of spare parts, new production planning or the automatic creation of maintenance notifications. Stieber: "This wear-oriented maintenance enables us to significantly extend the life cycle of machines."


Intelligent manufacturing within the framework of the IIoT has a positive influence on the growth, competitiveness and future viability of the company. Due to the rapidly emerging cost advantages, the investment in the necessary technologies is now also profitable for medium-sized companies. Upgrading existing systems or integrating existing sensors also makes the acquisition costs more manageable.

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