Can you brief us on the concept of the ‘factory of the future’?
Allow me to demystify this first. The ‘Factory of the Future’, or FoF as it is referred to, is not some Star Wars type jaw-dropping super factory that jumped off the silver screen. If you were to walk into a modern automotive plant, or perhaps if you’ve watched one of the several National Geographic’s Mega Factories documentaries, the automotive body shop even today, for instance, is an incredibly automated setup with sophisticated robots, vision systems and quality control systems. Take a look at a typical warehouse AS/RS (automated storage and retrieval systems). Significant automation is a given in today’s factories.
Coming to the ‘Factory of the Future’, although automation is a critical aspect, it is not the predominant theme. Connectivity and seamless integration is. End to end. The customer today wants to customise their products. Instant gratification is also a given. They don’t want to wait for 6 months before they lay their hands on the product. This demand for a customised product now, is only going to intensify in need, in the not-so-distant future. The ‘Factory of the Future’ is a concept of existing manufacturing facilities and technologies connected very tightly together to produce the specific product that the customer wants, much faster than is available today and hopefully at a lower cost.
To enable the ‘Factory of the Future’, it is critical to integrate the digital world with the physical world. Here is where the Digital Twin becomes relevant. Although the Digital Twin has several applications, I’ll explain the Digital Twin in the context of the factory. Imagine your factory completely rendered in 3D, representing the physical factory in every way. Now, imagine these two worlds are connected completely. You would be able to see production statistics in the digital world, you’d also perhaps see machines that have broken down for maintenance, you might see material handling units and automated delivery mechanisms transporting material all over the plant. Now imagine increased interactivity between machines and humans using Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality wherein perhaps the operator is in the virtual world with MoCap (Motion Capture) gear and HMD (Head Mounted Displays) interacting with machines and robots in the physical world without actually traveling to the plant. To this heady mixture, throw in a good dose of SMACI (Social, Mobile, Analytics, Cloud, and IOT), and you might as well be transported to a different world. Hopefully, this paints a good picture of what the ‘Factory of the Future’ might be.
What strategies and concrete steps are being taken by Tata Technologies in order to become a ‘factory of the future’?
We don’t have manufacturing units of our own today nor do we envisage building our own factories. With that said, it’s safe to assume that Tata Technologies is not going to become a ‘Factory of the Future’. Our company is in the business of helping manufacturing companies build better products that will ultimately benefit the people who would use those products. In the context of the ‘Factory of the Future’, what we are doing, what we are building capability for, is to help other manufacturing organisations worldwide cross that chasm to have that fully automated, customisable, intelligent, connected factory in the near future. To that end, Tata Technologies consistently focuses on:
Defining strategies to digitalise manufacturing, beyond product development and engineering, covering the extended enterprise across the value chain
Enabling smart, virtual and digital factories, downstream of product development information flows and processes, with a vision of moving towards Industry 4.0
Defining the enterprise-IT integration landscape, the Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) ecosystem, manufacturing execution system (MES), telematics technical architecture, implementation roadmaps and enabling IT legacy application retirement strategies
Can you give us your observations on the progress of Industry 4.0 or IIoT, which can help build ‘intelligent shopfloors’ in India? How ready is the Indian industry to adopt these new technologies?
Well, we know that manufacturing has been constantly evolving. To improve predictability and quality, we’ve also been witnessing a multi-fold increase in automation. Industry 4.0, IIoT, ‘Factory of the Future’ – these are not just buzz words; they’re the aspirational next step for all manufacturing companies worldwide. In terms of existing core technologies, there are essentially two components – enterprise IT systems like ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), PLM (Product Lifecycle Management), MES (Manufacturing Execution System), SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) and then the hardware like machines, material handling systems, sensors, RFIDs, PLCs, with a spattering of machine-to-machine communication systems.
While these core technologies and protocols exist today, what also exist are the many silos – silos created by the multitude of mostly interdependent but fundamentally independent systems. To make Industry 4.0 a reality with IIoT and ultimately realising a ‘Factory of the Future’, systems’ integration is key. Connected systems with seamless communication – machine-to-machine, machine-to-human and to enterprise systems are what will ultimately enable realisation of this aspirational goal. In this vast web of connected entities, an inordinate amount of data will be generated which will need to be crunched, dissected and analysed by and for decision making technologies. Further on, we will see algorithms and AI (Artificial Intelligence) playing a vital role to build the intelligent shopfloor of the future.
Specific to India, unfortunately, the biggest hurdle the manufacturing industry faces is the lack of digital awareness and maturity amongst organisations and their stakeholders. Take for instance, PLM. Most companies are still not aware of the positive impact PLM can have on the quality of their products and bottomline, as their focus invariably is more on daily operations. Instead of having conversations with manufacturing companies on process re-engineering and NPI (New Product Introduction), PLM vendors end up spending inordinate amounts of time trying to convince customers that PLM is crucial.
For India to take a leap forward, understanding that the basic building blocks of technologies is not a choice; that it is an existential pre-requisite, is critical. Once the digital maturity of organisations reach a point where they can check off all the ‘hygiene’ boxes, these organisations will be ready to take the next step towards intelligent shopfloors and factories. That said, you will find several Indian organisations that are well into the digitalisation journey with phenomenal eye-popping sophistication in different domains. These few market leaders in India are already dabbling in IoT and the connected enterprise.
In this era of intelligent machines, it is also observed that machines will recognise faults even before they appear, which is also termed as Predictive Maintenance. How do you think implementing such an approach will be beneficial for your company and industry?
First of all, one cannot look at machines in isolation. Even within the shopfloor, one needs to look at the entire ecosystem. Let’s say for instance, we’re looking at a multi-axis milling machine. Surely, the carbide tools need to be replaced whenever the tools wear down, other components may need to be replaced when they break down. On-board vision systems would be able to constantly detect micron level changes in dimensions of different parts being manufactured. Constant deterioration of tolerances, no matter how small, would be analysed by cloud based analysis tools. These tools would also be getting information from the viscosity of the cutting fluids, particulate matter in the oil, motor temperatures etc. In addition, automated vision systems would be able to perform a tolerance stack-up analysis for the final assembly. In totality, it would be logical to paint a picture of the state of the machine and accurate calls can be taken to either replace or repair certain components of specific machines in the production chain even before those components have broken down.
With so many products that have the ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in other SE Asian country’ label, we already know that the competition is brutal. The Indian industry must do whatever it can to reduce the cost of goods produced. Predictive maintenance is only one such area that can help reduce or contain costs. For Tata Technologies, it’s a great place to be, because we’re already building proprietary tools and capability to help such companies; not just in India, but abroad as well.
With the rapid pace of digitalisation and connectivity across all platforms, there is also a growing concern over the transmission and storage of data in a secured manner. What is your opinion on this and how is your company addressing such challenges?
I understand that concern. But one has to look at this problem in concentric circles, if I may. Let’s for instance, start from the plant outwards. Whether you’re talking about on-premise traditional systems or cloud based systems (on premise private or public) that house the customer’s data, there are existing technologies already in place that address most, if not all concerns. Appropriate data strategy with the right placements of data warehouses and enterprise data lake is key to future readiness. When you go to the supply chain’s concentric circle, problems will start to emerge. We’re talking of tier-1 suppliers to the manufacturer, and the Logistics providers. Not everyone is on the same IT systems that the manufacturing OEM is on. Data exchange standards and protocols, though quite sophisticated are still evolving. The cloud brings unlimited scalability and there are tools available to run required analytics. Cloud service providers are continuously upgrading their systems to keep enterprise data secure. To that end, Tata Technologies has been investing in tools and technologies so that the right and relevant data is shared to stakeholders in the ecosystem.
Today, with the evolution of robots, humans and robots have been known to be working hand-in-hand in a safe and efficient manner. What is your opinion about the future of such technologies in countries like India where there is good manpower availability, but lack of technology skills?
I would say that humans and robots working in a safe and efficient environment is becoming more and more achievable. Newer robots are becoming more aware of their surroundings and they can sense a human in their path, reducing the chance of accidents. In the future though, these industrial robots with great AI capabilities will be able to do a lot more than they are programmed to do today. Coming to your second point within the question, I think this notion that automation will displace all humans is rather misplaced. Many years ago, critics had prophesied that industrial construction equipment like excavators and back-hoes have no place in India where cheap labour is available. Look around now. As far as the factory and robots, or increased automation is concerned, I think this will only improve India’s industrial capacity multifold.
What concrete steps would you recommend in order to address the current challenges and make the Indian manufacturing sector future-ready and globally competitive?
In my opinion, this is such an existential issue. Inaction is suicidal. In my humble opinion, here is what I think the Indian manufacturing sector should do:
Begin with an aspiration to build anything better than the best in the world
This must be a top down executive mandate to become the best in their respective industry. The concept of ‘export quality’ must become obsolete and must be replaced by ‘Industry Best Quality’.
Focus on rapidly arriving at a global baseline and get the hygiene issues sorted. In other words, adopt technologies that have already been proven and tested by others. Start adopting tools and technologies that are a norm in the developed countries.
I would advise companies not to debate the validity of these technologies; rather figure out how much cost they can squeeze out of their system with these technologies.
Don’t throw money at the problem. Any implementations should be preceded with a digital landscape/ecosystem blue print. The more granular the detail, the better. Don’t accept anything superficial. There are a lot of people who will give you a blueprint report that is no more than a detailed presentation at a symposium. The blueprint has to be a rule book with everything from a detailed AS-IS analysis, detailed TO-BE state defined, requirements documented, the physical architecture, the logical architecture, data interface and integrations’ requirements, phasing of the project, solution design, and a clear path to get there.
Phasing the project is also very important. Try doing it all in one go with an aggressive timeline, and the ship will capsize. Spreading it out over many years will have a high probability of derailing the project.
Lastly, let the experts in. Do it right the first time. Get this done by good external consultant organisations. Relying on good consulting firms that can help leapfrog the company into a true 21st century is critical.