Last week I introduced everyone to our 8 part series on Intelligent Manufacturing and as promised here is the 1st article in that series. As with everything it is always good to start at the beginning and with that in mind we discuss the Plug & Play Factory.

It may seem that advances in new manufacturing technique are recent, it all began back in 1996 with NEMI (National Electronics Manufacturing Initiative) and from that the Plug & Play Factory concept was born. It is also important to note that the Plug & Play Factory is not a new type of factory or building but a set of manufacturing standards that are needed to achieve interoperability or plug & play capability on the factory floor.

The easiest way to understand it is think of how your office is now networked. All is controlled more or less at a central point for computer systems, telephony, printers and even building management and when something goes wrong you call IT. This is very much the same way. The entire factory is operating on a set parameter of communication standards, the machines are networked, so that all activity is monitored in real time and can even be managed remotely.

This is the first article of the 8 part series on Intelligent Manufacturing and many of the subsequent articles will deal directly with the standards set for in the NEMI Plug & Play Factory project. The project provided a proof of concept only and it was then that work began on standardization of protocols. The first of which was produced by ANSI in March of 2003: http://www.fed.de/downloads/IPC-2546.pdf. This is a detailed industry specific document. April of 2003 also saw Motorola proof of concept test and it is easier to follow: http://thor.inemi.org/webdownload/newsroom/Articles/Lessons%20Learned.pdf

It’s no secret that manufacturing, not just in the US, has been far and away one of the more productive areas of the economy for several years. This has not always been the case with the industry undergoing severe stress due to personnel and manufacturing costs. These are problems that we don’t hear about nearly as frequently as we once did. The reason for that improved productivity and their advances in the market place can– to some extent– be attributed to their embracing the new technology standards that is known as the plug and play factory. It’s being called a Renaissance of sorts in the industry.

We are seeing webinars and seminars on the plug and play factory are being given on a regular basis to introduce other industry and factory producing companies to the benefits of plug and play. (http://www.industryweek.com/webinar/advanced-manufacturing-digital-factory).

Another benefit that the Plug & Play Factory standard can offer us is the ability to do far more in a much more limited space. Some industries particularly that of small businesses are limited by size and funding capabilities, but with higher efficiency due to the interoperability standards can allow for those limitations, even work with them better. This allows smaller businesses to maximize the use of property to achieve higher levels of production with fewer personnel. Many factories are using a third less space to accomplish the same thing that they previously needed far more space to do. This saves the company money on personnel, space, utilities and on other expenses for the production.

Digital manufacturing is not just the wave of the future; in many cases it has already arrived. It is saving time, saving money and saving energy for manufacturers around the globe. Data driven factories will be the future of manufacturing for nearly every industry in the world. According to Leo Sadovy Performance Management at SAS, “the economy of the future will include a fifth factor: information. Information by itself will come to be seen as a peer, not merely a subset, of capital and labor.”

The benefits of this system are a dual edged sword. One good example of those benefits is the ability to provide far more goods and services but require far fewer employees in order to accomplish that. In fact, according to SAS, the factory of the future will require little more so far as employees and personnel than a man and a dog and the dog is only to keep the employee company. That is the end game so to speak, a fully automated facility with easily configurable components and equipment. The full scale interoperability will mean manufacturing can flex to meet changing requirements & demands quickly and more efficiently.
Increased efficiency and productivity is always the goal but as with everything it comes at a cost. Education and job skill development now more than ever are critical for a company’s survival. It is those that can provide quality specialists that will prosper and become a magnet for other companies. These new standards can be a burden or a boon. The difference is who is better prepared to take up the challenges of a real 21st century manufacturing environment.

Next week: Intelligent Manufacturing: Machine diagnosing Machine

James Kemper is the president of W. H. Meanor & Associates, an executive placement & training company specializing in engineering & manufacturing careers. He can be reached at: jms@whmeanor.com or 704-372-7640 #102 or visit at www.whmeanor.com