Smart Manufacturing and Cutting Time to Market in Half

Publish Date

13 NOV 2022


Kai Beckmann


Smart factories are already taking shape. They are modular, interconnected and self-learning. But the use of digital technologies and innovations is not limited to making production more flexible and efficient.

Smart factories are already becoming a reality. Even though it will still take a while before digitalized development and manufacturing are fully perfected, a diverse range of digital strategies have already been defined and it’s just a matter of time before they’re implemented. After all, the market environment is changing rapidly. It will be impossible to handle many of the transformative changes currently underway without using Industry 4.0 applications.

Product variety is increasing in all sectors. This presents manufacturers with the challenge of ever quicker development and production cycles. The time from the laboratory to manufacture and, ultimately, delivery needs to be shortened. In the chemical industry too, some batches now only run for two or three days. Customized products are sometimes requested in such small amounts that using classic manufacturing processes is not economical. Industry 4.0 helps to launch new products much quicker and more flexibly.

More intense cost and competitive pressure also adds to the challenges. In Asia, digitalization is a top priority when it comes to industrial policy. Examples of this include the “Made in China 2025” initiative and the Korean “Manufacturing Innovation 3.0” strategy. Only companies that position themselves globally and operate at the cutting edge of technological development will be able to assert themselves in this environment. After all, consistently using smart technologies significantly improves product quality and reduces production costs.

Flexibility and efficiency no longer at odds: together towards sustainable and resilient production

Sustainability and resilience are also moving up to the top of the agenda. A growing number of companies are setting ambitious targets to reduce energy and resource consumption. CO2 emissions should be sufficiently reduced so that companies can contribute to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement and keeping global warming well below 2°C. We at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, are also committed to become climate neutral by 2040. Digitalizing industrial processes helps optimize resource consumption and reduce CO2 emissions.

This is all made possible thanks to smart networking of a wide range of technologies and innovations, including the industrial Internet of Things, Big Data and artificial intelligence as well as cloud and 5G. Up to now, the industry has focused primarily on enhancing manufacturing potential through the smart connection of these applications. With modular plants and modular automation, full flexibility in a globally spread network is not limited on virtual applications anymore. We achieve a flexible and thus resilient network by the option of physically moving our modular manufacturing units to those places where they are most efficiently feeding into our supply network. 

The smart factory is modular. It consists of specialized production units with standardized interfaces that are flexibly combined as required. All modules are interconnected and communicate with each other. The manufacturing process becomes self-learning by analyzing large amounts of data, enabling it to carry out predictive maintenance. The entire production chain can be monitored with the aid of computers, meaning it can be shaped more flexibly and controlled more efficiently. According to a study by VDI and the professional society for the chemical industry DECHEMA in which we also participated, this leads to medium-term material and energy savings of up to 30%. This, in turn, reduces costs as well as the environmental footprint. 

This started in Darmstadt, in the new research building E65, with the automation software by COPA-DATA. Our global laboratory environment will follow, enabling us to connect development and manufacturing processes seamlessly together.

In contrast to the production hall, everyday work in research and development (R&D) is characterized primarily by the fact that systems regularly have to be reconfigured and work steps continually changed. In the future, all systems will be able to communicate using a central control system. Individual work steps are saved in modules and researchers can repeatedly and quickly combine them into new applications and processes in a few clicks and without the need for programming knowledge.

Factory in a box: on the highway to commercial production

Not only does this lead to a significantly more flexible R&D process, but it also creates a direct path from the laboratory to the factory. This means formulas being developed in the laboratory can quickly enter mass production without the need to waste effort on manually reconfiguring the production lines. Laboratory facilities be transferred directly into the smallest production units: the “factory in a box” even enables the production of small batch sizes. Overall, this is how we can accelerate time-to-market by up to 50%.

The smart factory is managed by people

All of this will only succeed if we continue to improve the interplay between humans and machines. While control circuits in the production chain are becoming increasingly automated and self-regulating, humans remain in charge, monitoring the processes and making decisions or intervening as required in critical moments. In addition, I assume it will not be possible to properly close all automation gaps without human input, even in the future.

Thanks to modern communication systems, employees are closely connected with the networked development and manufacturing systems. Using touch screens and digital assistants, they can access information from the entire value chain at any time. According to a survey of German companies carried out on behalf of VDI, consistently using digital applications can significantly increase productivity and raise value added per employee by 15%-27%.

But we’re not just going to leave our employees to figure things out on their own. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that a sudden change from working in the office to working remotely is possible if the technology is available and all parties work collaboratively towards this objective. And we will shape the transformation into smart factories in the same way. After all, it’s clear that people are fundamental to our entrepreneurial success.

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