Are we far from digital factories?

Control Engineering International: What are the attributes of a digital factory and how can they help you today? Control Engineering China provided insights after touring a plant touted as a model factory for Industrie 4.0.

By Aileen Jin December 12, 2016

Asking the question, "How far are we from the ideal digital factory?" may bring varied thoughts to mind, such as a production line full of robots or a factory with little human intervention. A tour of the Siemens Chengdu R&D Base, an "Industry 4.0 Model Factory," begins with a low-key exterior for a very famous plant. Standing at the gate of the simple, blue-gray plant, it is hard to imagine that, with an area no larger than a football field, the plant completes one product every 10 seconds, with daily capacity of more than 10,000 products, with a defect rate of less than 10 per million products.

High quality manufacturing

This may be one of the factories that have the lowest product defect rate in the world, and another plant that can reach this standard is in Amberg (Germany).

As early as 27 years ago, Siemens plant in Amberg was transformed into a digital factory: Under the circumstance that the original plant area is unchanged, the production capacity has improved 8 fold, and production rate there also is one product per second. The Chengdu plant is built using best practices from the Amberg plant, becoming the first Siemens "digital factory" outside of Germany.

According to the introduction by the person-in-charge of the plant, when the plant was built, it was not positioned to exhibit the Industrie 4.0 platform attributes. The original intention was to bring the most advanced technology to the most important market and provide better service to Chinese customers. The Chengdu plant includes manufacturing of programmable logic controllers (PLCs), human-machine interfaces (HMIs), and industrial PCs (IPCs), and 60% of them supply the Chinese market.

The launch of Industrie 4.0 and "China Manufacturing 2025" makes Siemens Chengdu plant a destination site for Chinese manufacturing enterprises eager to perform this transformation. In the 3 years since production began, more than 15, 000 people have visited the plant; the number of visitors is more than 30 times the number of Siemens Chengdu plant employees, the company said. 

Digital factory concepts, objectives

The Siemens Chengdu plant assembly line vigorously displays "digital factory" concepts, such as real-time interconnections with the external world. This "transparent" factory demonstrates the seamless information interconnections from the bottom-layer control system up to manufacturing execution system (MES), product lifecycle management (PLM) software, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

The Siemens Chengdu plant provides practical examples to help avoid detours when building a digital factory. First, determine the purpose of constructing a digital factory. Industrial factories and the projects inside should not merely follow current fashion. Next, focus on whether an Industrie 4.0 application improves the product quality and production efficiency of the enterprise. Without clear objectives, becoming a successful Industrie 4.0 enterprise, even with advanced technology and software, may be a fantasy. 

Factory design flexibility

Mature top-level design capabilities are significant for new projects. In the Siemens Chengdu plant, above-ground wiring is barely visible; cables and pipelines are placed in a lower-level logistics area; and a power pipeline directly connects with equipment above. Positioning and wiring layout are elaborately planned and designed.

For optimal production utilization, the lower level contains all equipment irrelevant to the production line (including the control cabinet), so that production can be arranged most efficiently on the manufacturing floor, creating more benefits.

To dispel a potential misunderstanding, robots aren’t necessarily used on a large scale for digital production or intelligent manufacturing; it depends on the application. Use of too many robots can reduce production line flexibility. In the Siemens Chengdu plant, four product types can be produced simultaneously on most production lines. Reasonable planning ensures flexibility in future production capacity adjustments. In particular, for existing small-batch and diversified customized products, flexible production capacity can adjust and respond to customer needs quickly.

There is no uniform model or time for each stop on the road to a digital factory; there is only opportunity. Are you ready?

Aileen Jin is editor in chief, Control Engineering China; Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,


Key concepts

  • High throughput, quality, and flexibility make an automation manufacturing plant in China a destination point for those applying Industrie 4.0 concepts.
  • Knowing goals before starting is important.
  • Robotics can be widely used but not at the expense of other potential goals, such as small batch flexibility.

Consider this

Have you toured other sites to learn about IIoT or Industrie 4.0 best practices?

ONLINE extra

See the Control Engineering Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) page and learn more about other international initiatives.

Author Bio: Aileen Jin is editor-in-chief of Control Engineering China.