Southco transforming facilities into smart factories by connecting software with processes

Jon Lawson

Charlie Barrett reveals how a process expert is using technology to connect to Industry 4.0

In the age of the fourth industrial revolution, known as Industry 4.0, digital technologies are linking the physical and digital worlds, helping to create a new future of connectivity for manufacturers.

Manufacturers can take advantage of this new era of connectivity, which promises to deliver greater productivity, improved utilisation of assets and enhanced decision-making, by linking their operations data with smart manufacturing technologies. To fully leverage the value of operations information, manufacturers will need to embrace Industry 4.0 and understand how the data gathered from their operations footprint fits into the Internet of Things (IoT).

By implementing manufacturing executing software, operations teams can seamlessly blend data and production, optimising every machine and production run to deliver superior products. At Southco, operations teams are transforming facilities into “smart” factories by connecting software with processes to increase efficiency whilst reducing defects, downtime and waste.

Continual progress

One commonly held misconception of Industry 4.0 and of the IoT is that they are relatively new concepts in manufacturing. However, Southco, a leading manufacturer of engineered access hardware solutions, has been building its smart factory since 2007, when the company introduced the Epicor Mattec Manufacturing Execution System (MES).

Epicor provides industry-specific business software to support manufacturing, distribution, retail and services organisations. The Epicor Mattec MES enables companies to monitor their production and process manufacturing operations in real-time, allowing them to reduce scrap, waste and machine downtime, as well as improve cycle times, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), productivity and automatic part qualification.

The introduction of the MES marked the beginning of Southco’s global transformation of the way that it manages production and process control through the use of smart technologies.

Originally, it was introduced solely as production control software that was used to track the inputs and outputs of the injection moulding machines at Southco’s Worcester, UK manufacturing facility. Over time, the team worked closely with Epicor to further develop the system to incorporate improved functionality that has been tailored specifically to operations requirements. 

A decade later, Southco now uses the software to create a visual factory. Extracting data from a host of different sources, the MES organises all of the information into a visual dashboard that helps to support the improvement in manufacturing processes through continuous analysis. By observing both production control and process control simultaneously, the business can constantly improve the quality of work.

The main driver behind implementing Industry 4.0 was to improve internal operations processes, by developing them in line with market conditions and available technologies. Building smart technology into the facility allowed Southco to better understand its products and processes while enabling the workforce to be more accurate with deliverables.

One example where smart technology has enhanced operations is through product quality evaluation: before a plastic injection mould opens, the system alerts the operator to whether the end product is good or bad. This translates into a better product for the customer, as quality monitoring is built directly into the process (rather than having to manually inspect each batch). Having more efficient manufacturing production processes has enabled the business to improve all aspects of assembly and has given actionable insights from data analytics.  

In contrast to commonly held perceptions, the introduction of smart technologies and Industry 4.0 does not need to involve a revolutionary change to the business and its processes. As demonstrated by Southco, when working with a trusted supplier, businesses can take gradual steps towards creating a fully connected smart factory.

Central to the business

For many manufacturers, one of the greatest blocks to Industry 4.0 is the prospect of implementing it in the first place. Not surprisingly, the potential cost and the impact on efficiency during the implementation period are perceived as major obstacles. However, Southco has experienced a smooth progression towards Industry 4.0 by embedding its smart technology right at the heart of its manufacturing facility, rather than treating it an add-on. The system links with other businesses systems such as SAP, with the exchange of information between the two systems providing vital benefits.

By linking to an Enterprise Resource Planning system, such as SAP, tooling can be allocated almost immediately, meaning new production can commence with limited down time. Secondly, there is no human intervention, which in turn reduces the risk of human error. By building in Industry 4.0 alongside existing systems, manufacturers can streamline implementation, limit downtime and improve product accuracy and quality.

Beyond data

The IoT goes hand in hand with data – having systems in place that work together allows internal teams to identify where operational inefficiencies lie. Being able to more easily locate and analyse the data helps senior management to develop strategies for continuing to meet the OEE standard. With 85% OEE being the world-class standard, Southco, which is currently operating at 75% OEE, has seen a marked improvement to its performance since implementing the Epicor Mattec MES.

Gaining valuable insight through data isn’t the only advantage of Industry 4.0 for manufacturers. Moving towards the creation of a smart factory offers a host of other benefits. For instance, the Industry 4.0 evolution is enabling organisations to transform their facilities into paperless environments, allowing information on injection-moulding machines, self-automated assembly, user guides and machine performance to be stored in the cloud. Storing data in a cloud-based application helps to reduce the physical requirement needed to store information on-site in large servers, thus freeing up space and reducing power requirements.

From concept to reality

For many manufacturers, Industry 4.0 understandably brings up as many concerns as it does perceived opportunities. As Southco’s journey illustrates, rather than looking to implement change all in one go, making gradual but focused changes on an on-going basis offers many benefits.

Manufacturers can gain from looking at what Industry 4.0 can do for them and how it can support their goals, by adopting smart technology that enhances specific areas of their operations business. In this way, manufacturers can build in technologies that support their long-term visions for process improvement and better quality products. 

Industry 4.0 is often described as the fourth industrial revolution. However, as Southco’s experience shows, manufacturers will benefit by seeing it instead as part of their continued evolution.

Charlie Barrett is with Southco.

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