As manufacturers continue to grapple with the challenges of pandemic, Steve O’Connell, sales and marketing director at Advantex, considers the new digital technologies coming on stream that secure productivity.

Recent research carried out in North America by international professional services firm Deloitte reveals that new digitalisation (digital technologies ) is high on the shopping list of manufacturers looking to invest as part of an effective strategy to meet the economic and political uncertainties that lie on the road ahead in a post pandemic world. Indeed, the evidence strongly suggests that those manufacturers who have made digital investments in the past 12 months have bounced back stronger and quicker from the affects of Covid in recent times, and those who are now planning to plough fresh resources into improving their digital capabilities are sure to be far more responsive when normality returns.

In the UK, we are seeing for ourselves manufacturers fast developing their smart factories to meet current and future production challenges and stay a step ahead of their competitors. For those companies making the smart investments, digitalisation built around improved connectivity and wireless services will facilitate the transformation of their infrastructures (and businesses), providing even more flexibility as they accommodate the ebb and flow of consumer demand; increasing manufacturing or slowing or even shifting production in response to disruptions.

New industrial age

We are in the white heat of a new industrial age – Industry 4.0 – and the ‘intelligent’ interconnected digital factories lie at the heart of this revolution. In this brave new world, every aspect of the production process, from procurement and component supply chain management through manufacturing and quality control to storage and distribution is increasingly being automated, powered by digital data to deliver significant business performance benefits, demonstrable efficiencies and savings across the board.

But we must think from the foundation up. The adoption of advanced data cabling to provide strong foundations for hardware, 5G enabled wireless networks, data switching and digital communications among other systems before we even think about the applications, is ensuring we are delivering competitive technology-driven solutions that not only improve processes and business performance, but also support growth and operational expansion. The digital tools that lie at the heart of today’s connected factory allow manufacturers to work ever smarter and far more effectively than they have ever done before, improving cyber security and safety protocols in the process.

At a fundamental level, the connected factory starts with digitising physical assets and processes by embedding smart sensors into product components and equipment, enabling the real-time collection of production data and powered by superfast and secure internet connectivity. Physical assets such as plant and machines are controlled by information systems or sophisticated data analytics, enabling them to be fully optimised and autonomously operated – no need for human intervention.

But let’s not forget about the video capture technology and the analytics and big data that we can extract. This is no longer about traditional security surveillance; this is more about using technology on an open IT platform and digitalisation that will enable you to achieve your business goals. This can be monitoring the use of PPE in live environments, detecting anomalies like temperature or smoke, or providing access to areas or equipment based on an operative’s qualifications.

Data, which can be collated from a variety of sources and held on centralised secure networks, comprehensively manages production and enterprise resource planning among core manufacturing systems. These are all fully integrated to enable the exchange of information and optimise processes. Into this digital hegemony, technology meshes seamlessly with design and product development, enabling manufacturers to build, test and analyse applications in a virtual world before they go live.

It might be too prescient to see humans as an irrelevance in the digital manufacturing age but if human interaction is ever required, connectivity is a flexible friend that can allow, for example, managers to step in to automatically isolate machines that are not required, or schedule downtime based on what the sensors are saying about the condition of the machines. This enables them to actively identify and avoid disruptions to the production process – unplanned downtime, which can bring everything to a halt, can be extremely expensive.

Data is of course paramount in the interconnected factory. So its capture and storage focuses the spotlight clearly on robust infrastructures that prevent crafty cyber criminals, bent on stealing valuable data or disrupting commercial activity, from seeing manufacturing as a glittering lure. Indeed, regular surveys reveal that UK manufacturers are the victims of millions of cyber attacks each year. Doubtless, there are many more attacks that go unheralded or unrecorded.

Experimentation and innovation

Counteracting cyber threats and hacks requires a robust infrastructure, spanning LAN, WAN, fibre optics and wireless technology, so the adoption of the latest in network infrastructure and cyber security to protect networks is paramount in an interconnected world. Remember, each device connected to the Internet of Things provides a tempting gateway for a hacker to breach or compromise hardware and software systems. Investing now in expert knowledge and the technologies will keep you safe and secure.

It’s clear that manufacturing, where experimentation and innovation are twin narratives, is at the forefront of integrating digital connectivity to improve productivity, performance and profits. And as the scope of the connected world continues to expand beyond the physical factory walls to encompass more and more the global supply networks, the possibilities for smart digitalisation will only grow, contributing in so many ways to reshaping our lives and allowing billions of people to share and prosper in yet unforeseen ways.