Innovating in the process industry with PLM

Dec 1, 2017 | IT in Manufacturing

There is no doubt that with Industrie 4.0 there is a lot of innovation taking place in manufacturing IT. But ‘innovation’ is not only the creation of a new idea out of nothing but more often the combination of two existing ideas in a new way to create something entirely new. For example, by combining a telephone, a music player, a camera, and a GPS into a single smart device we create a range of new experiences and possibilities for communication, entertainment, and travel. The value of the sum of the parts is more than that of the individual components.

Technology sharing across industries

The same thinking can be applied to IT solutions used in manufacturing. In one particular vertical industry a technology might have developed to maturity, and yet still be relatively invisible to another. This means that innovation is possible by simply applying the solutions from one industry in the other. In my consulting role, I have found that owing to industry specialisation surprisingly little experience is shared between vertical industries, and people tend to stick with the established techniques they know. There might be an opportunity for you to adopt a proven technique from another industry in a new way and thereby gain a competitive edge for your business in its own niche.

As industrial manufacturers face new challenges and opportunities arising from increased digitisation, many are looking to improve their existing MES architecture to support future strategic initiatives. Superficially they might refer to Industrie 4.0 as the driving force behind this change. But Industrie 4.0 is not a platform, it originated as an initiative in Germany to maintain and protect the competitiveness of the manufacturing sector. It cannot be purchased, nor implemented in the way an ERP solution might be, but rather describes a future of interconnected businesses involving cyber-physical systems, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and cognitive computing. This will manifest in many practical ways in your own business.

In the traditional vertical process industries such as oil and gas, chemicals, pulp and paper, and so on, the emphasis is on maximising the return on assets in capital intensive plants and minimising the cost of production of bulk commodity products. New product development, personalised products for customers, and responsive supply chains are important, but in practice, these specific requirements are nowhere near as well developed as they are in fast-moving discrete industries such as consumer goods, aerospace, etc.

The reality is that Industrie 4.0 will introduce increased volatility and change, and even the large commodity process companies will need to adapt. Is there then a technique we can learn, or a concept that we can take from the world of discrete manufacturing to apply in a process manufacturing plant that might provide a good foundation (or platform)? This will then create a more resilient business capable of responding to increasing volatility and change. In other words, could we innovate in the world of process manufacturing by simply taking an existing IT solution from the world of discrete?

Product lifecycle management

In this regard, it might be worth taking a closer look at PLM (product lifecycle management). PLM originated to allow component manufacturers in the automotive supply chain to supply new products rapidly in response to the fast-moving requirements of the motor manufacturers. PLM has since matured into a well-established business process widely used in discrete manufacturing, but it is far less common in process manufacturing companies.

PLM tracks the lifecycle of each product from concept to design and engineering, manufacturing, quality, and service management. A typical PLM environment is a formal system of collaboration to enable rapid product development and engineering, portfolio management, technical data management, service management, and continuous improvement. These processes are supported by a governance and compliance layer that ensures that changes are controlled, approved, and in line with the requirements of legislation and the companies own standards.

The adoption of PLM in process manufacturing has been slower than in discrete manufacturing owing to the intrinsic nature of their asset-intensive operations.

A chemicals plant might have a few dozen products at most, and sell these in high volumes to relatively few customers. Historically there was little need for customisation in such a scenario, and a dedicated plant will typically make a single product to specification. The product is generally produced to stock.

In contrast, discrete industries have high numbers of personalised products which are generally made to order. The complexity of managing a large portfolio of these unique products requires significant collaboration across multiple disciplines including development, engineering, sales, and service. This collaboration platform is potentially of interest to a processing company facing a much more complex and dynamic challenge as Industrie 4.0 takes hold across the industry.

A PLM solution is far more than a simple document management system with workflows. PLM systems support the process of inception, design, and engineering, right through to real-world monitoring. The whole value chain is modeled through the product lifecycle allowing for optimisation across multiple disciplines and organisational functions/departments.

The future manufacturing environment described by Industrie 4.0 is a dynamic one, where information flows alongside the physical products. The pace of change will be significant, not only in the actual product requirements but also in raw materials, pricing, regulatory requirements, territories, and so on. Furthermore, service levels will become more complex to maintain as customers demand more unique and personalised supply contracts. The impact of these dynamic and fast-moving changes on the core manufacturing value chain should really be managed by a platform that is much better than the existing disconnected ‘electronic scraps of paper’ found in most companies.

This article was first published on SA Instrumentation and Control.

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