Building the vision of the Autonomous Factory

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Written by
Nils Heininger

Head of Smart Factory Solutions at Panasonic Connect Europe

Building the vision of the Autonomous Factory

In this second article on the vision for the autonomous factory, Nils Heininger, Head of Panasonic Smart Factory Solutions at Panasonic Connect Europe, outlines how Panasonic is bringing together the necessary building blocks for manufacturers to achieve their goals.

From a smart factory perspective the recent name change of Panasonic’s business-to-business organisation to Panasonic Connect Europe could not have been more appropriate. To achieve the future vision of the autonomous factory – as outlined in my first article – for a totally integrated supply chain with lights-out production and ultimately zero human operators, the challenge is connectivity.

How do we connect and automate each individual element of the production process, from the intake of components, through manufacturing to the products ultimate destination? This is not a puzzle that can be easily solved. There are many different elements that need to be automated and connected – requiring a combination of many technologies, from hardware, and networked cloud infrastructure to software, all combined with integration and manufacturing expertise. 

Making the smart factory a reality

But significant progress is being made and Panasonic is shaping itself to deliver in all of these areas. Bringing Panasonic Smart Factory Solutions into the Panasonic Connect Europe organisation was just the first step. From development of production machinery, to improvement of production processes, to factory-wide optimisation, we are able to provide support for factories across Europe.

Our factory solutions business is focused on automated production hardware and the connected operational control software that makes the autonomous production line a reality. We provide the digital layer which enables different machines and systems currently in silos, to talk to one another. That translates into full visibility and the ability to gather both real time and historical data that can be used to optimise operations.

Methods for procurement logistics and production planning are becoming increasingly important and we have cyber-physical systems in our portfolio, using computer-based algorithms, to assist in this area. In addition, we can also model the entire production process and display it as a digital twin. This system makes it possible to improve the capacity utilisation of several lines and reduce the set-up times factored into the production schedule.

Looking to the near future, our next generation powerful PanaCIM software system will provide additional modules to enable the flexible integration of management systems in an SMT production facility. It delivers Process Enforcement, Material Management, Asset Performance Maintenance, Product Traceability, Defect Management, Business Intelligence and Station Control. With the associated data transparency, quality can be improved. In addition, costs are reduced and productivity is increased. Plan-result differences can be analysed automatically and production schedules can be optimised accordingly.

In combination with our line controller iLNB the path is set for manufacturing 4.0. It is an ideal solution because the industrial PC developed in cooperation with Siemens can control an entire production line. Third-party systems can also be integrated, so standards such as 'Hermes' and 'ELS' are no longer relevant for machine-to-machine communication. Instead the iLNB offers both horizontal and vertical access to a digital factory.

Automatic changeovers will become reality. With the captured data, the entire production can be managed at different hierarchical levels and the PanaCIM system can be operated as a complete MES system. It is also possible to exchange data with higher-level enterprise software such as SAP. This makes it possible to eliminate small variations beyond the line level, such as recording errors centrally with the help of a remote operation function. The iLNB will be the gateway for an entire digital factory.

Process automation where value is created

Under the Pansonic Connect Europe organisation, we also now work hand-in-hand with its Gemba Process Innovation team to help manufacturers focus on the individual areas that still require optimisation and automation.

Our solutions team can draw upon Panasonic’s 100 year experience of building and optimising our own manufacturing operations and supply chains and apply this know-how and technologies to create efficient new automated processes.

One recent example of success is with Automotive manufacturing giant Continental. The aim of the project was to shorten the time between goods receipt and booking so that goods were available for production more quickly. Panasonic delivered a turnkey system combining two technologies - object recognition, and projection mapping. The parcels are loaded onto the 7m long conveyor belt where the Visual Sort Assist solution scans the barcodes and projects the suppliers' name and priority onto the parcels, which are transported over the belt at 0.8 metres per second.

To create the solution, Panasonic monitored and evaluated the material flow, the data streams and the manual working process with a team of experts from Europe and Japan consisting of business analysts, system engineers and software specialists. During the course of the project, central key technologies such as image processing software were developed further in collaboration with the customer. The results were a read rate of 99.6%, this means that the system processes 300 parcels in 20 minutes, or 15 parcels per minute - almost regardless of placement, font size, font, or possible previous damage. The search times have now been eliminated by 40% - and will be reduced by 90% with the next update of the Warehouse Management Software.

The connected supply chain

Above the connection of the physical and digital elements of the production process itself, the next connected layer essential to the successful delivery of the autonomous factory is the connected supply chain.

Zetes, a European Panasonic company, has this piece of the puzzle. Its manufacturing supply chain solutions allow manufacturers to run a fully connected, real-time supply chain. From the plant floor and warehouse operations right through to distribution and delivery, manufacturers can have agility, traceability and visibility on goods, people, assets and events. Whether it’s for complying with the latest traceability standards, minimising inventory, managing supplier performance or meeting stringent just-in-time schedules, Zetes solutions have the ability to digitalise and automate. Its solutions integrate with the leading ERP, MES, WMS and TMS systems. And Zetes’ IoT and mobile data capture expertise can provide real-time operational and actionable data on the location and condition of any goods and assets.

Business-level intelligent insight

The final piece of the jigsaw is the Machine Learning-driven, business-level management automation available from Panasonic’s latest acquisition, BlueYonder. Digitalisation has yielded insights for manufacturers to be more responsive to demand surges. To keep pace, supply chains are becoming living, fluid ecosystems coordinated by Blue Yonder’s LuminateTM platform. It can synchronise solutions across planning, execution, labour, e-commerce and delivery to optimise a manufacturing business end-to-end. It leverages industry-leading artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) capabilities, workflow-driven user experiences and real-time connections to help manufacturers better predict, prevent and resolve disruptions across the entire business.

One example of Blue Yonder success is with Coca-Cola HBC. When the pandemic changed consumption patterns as bars and restaurants were closed, more people re-created their consumption routines at home. This meant that beverage producers needed the ability to better predict demand to ensure they matched planned production to customer needs. To improve visibility and seamlessly orchestrate its supply chain, Coca-Cola HBC chose Blue Yonder’s SaaS-based Luminate™ Planning solutions to power its end-to-end supply chain.

Making the vision a reality

Clearly the path to autonomous manufacturing is a complicated one with many layers of systems and technologies interconnected from the production line on the factory floor right up to the boardroom. But the critical elements of automation are now well under way and the technologies, such as the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence, are available to solve the last elements of the puzzle. The manufacturing industry still has some way to travel but Panasonic is in a position to help make that vision a reality.

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