Across the globe, the majority of factories are brownfield facilities with an average age of 25 years. Most of the equipment dates from the time before the digital revolution. In other words: typically, brownfield operations remain analogue brownfield operations. Interestingly, the older the plant, the less likely ownership will invest in new machinery. As the costs for digital solutions have been very high, most manufacturers opted for the greenfield approach to set up an entirely new factory instead of investing in ageing facilities, contributing to the digital disparity between analogue brownfield operations and digital greenfield processes.
What challenges do brownfield manufacturers have?
Let’s try to showcase this by an example from the tire producing industry. The shop floor logistics necessary are complex and prone to human errors. Getting the right material, to the right tire building machine, at the right time can be a nightmare. Manual bar code scans are still common practice, yet outdated, costly and not well suited for a First Expired First Out (FEFO) based production.
It is common practice in tire manufacturing to load raw materials onto material carriers (or bobbins) at the so called cutting machines, to store these carriers in storage locations and to transport the right carriers to the staging area of a tire building machine where the right carriers need to get inserted into the matching slots of a tire building machine.
In a large-scale production environment with multiple storage areas on several floor levels, thousands of material carriers and hundreds of cutting and tire building machines, production logistics becomes a challenge aggravated by keeping control of the FEFO principle.
An unintended violation of the FEFO principle can lead to perished raw materials. Long search times for specific material carriers reduce labour productivity and increase the risk of perished goods. One missing carrier at the staging area – or just a forgotten scan of a carrier – impedes the start of the production order, reducing machine utilization and labour productivity. And finally, a wrong material inserted into the tire building machine results in a drop of profitability.
In sum: these challenges produce a lot of waste of time and thrown-away material.
How can brownfield manufacturers improve their KPIs?
For the sake of the argument, let’s continue with the tire producing industry. In order to reduce production cost, tire manufacturers must increase machine utilization, reduce scrap of raw materials, eliminate production errors of the final product and increase labour productivity.
Any IIoT based solution must focus on the whole process from loading raw material onto a material carrier (or bobbin), managing the storage and staging areas, as well as the insertion of carriers into the tire building machine.
RTLS can solve all these issues: Every carrier gets outfitted with a battery powered device – a so called transponder – which enables the application software to identify, to locate and to communicate with every single material carrier at any given location in the production plant. The solution scales up to thousands of transponders in one plant and works outdoors if required.
When the raw material gets loaded onto a carrier at the cutting machine, an RTLS-enabled solution then checks if the carrier/ material association is correct and provides an immediate feedback, best visually, to the worker, for example via a red-yellow-green LED indication integrated into the transponder. The carrier can be moved to any storage location allowing chaotic storage because such a solution always knows its position with unmatched precision also in a metal obstructed production environment.
In the end, the entire tire building process becomes immune to human errors without any user interaction, therefore eliminating manual bar code scans. Carrier search times are reduced, scrap due to perished raw material is abolished while machine utilization and labour productivity go up. All in all, this leads to an increase of tire output volume without investment into additional tire building machines or more personnel.
The initial investment costs are proven to have a compelling payback period of less than one year.