Digitisation in factory production can speed up customisation: Domhnall Carroll of Siemens Ireland

Materials World magazine
25 Mar 2019

Siemens Ireland’s Domhnall Carroll speaks to Ceri Jones about future factories and manufacturing in Ireland.

What do you do at Siemens Ireland?

The purpose of the division is establishing how to improve manufacturing, and then using digital technologies and automation technologies to achieve that. Most of our work is spent working closely with companies in the food and drink, and pharmaceutical business, to look at their production challenges and see how can we improve their current work. This would be things like improving scheduling, quality and flexibility in the factory. We have a lot of technologies in service that help with that, so all of our projects are now spent in and around that space.

So it’s about refining data and improving processes?

Yes, we have two approaches on that – one is looking at a current operation and is focused on the operational data. So you would look at how orders are managed, how the machines are told what to do, what kind of performance the machines have etc. Then the second part is very much around the design of products and the factory. Being able to have a digital representation of both your product and your production really gives you the potential to improve a lot in your manufacturing and when you start manufacturing because you have a digital representation of your plant [a digital twin] which allows you to simulate improvements or do scenario planning around layouts. But to do this in a virtual environment means they’re not really impacting on your day-to-day production. It’s a very effective way of testing some improvements.

What are the challenges facing Irish industries at the moment?

Manufacturing is a big part of our GDP as a percentage of the proportion base. The current challenges are those brought on by the modern digital age and those brought on through globalisation. We see things like integration of supply chain as really important right now. In the past, the integration might have been less automated than it is now, but really, there’s a big drive to connect all the different players within a supply chain. Flexibility is really important so manufacturing has to be able to adapt to changing customer requirements in relatively short notice. That means you have to offer a high-quality product at speed, but in a very flexible way where customer requirements change quite quickly. You have to be able to adapt. Then, the last thing we see is the requirement to do this in a very safe and very cyber secure environment. We see the main challenges are around how to get flexibility at scale into manufacturing sites in a way that is both high quality, safe and cyber secure.

Do you see digitisation affecting skills and future workforces?

Definitely. You see that some of the workforce, at least, needs to consider a digital aspect of their jobs. In the past maybe this wasn’t required, but a lot of the tasks required on site are becoming automated. There’s a lot of discussion around what skills will be needed in the future compared to the current skills on site. There’s definitely an improvement in automation levels of the equipment and this is something which has been going on for the last 30-40 years, creating more intense levels of what we call factory automation.

The need for a digital representation of your product and your process means that you really need people who can interact with that and have some level of digital skills so they can work and operate effectively in a more digitalised environment. These are probably additional skills that people need if they don’t already have them. I think it’s potentially not a completely new role or a new kind of employee, I think it’s just having those digital skills within your existing team.

Is that growing up with new workforces or can it be applied to existing ones?

It’s still a big challenge and if you think of the incumbent workforce, I think there’s a very large number of people in manufacturing and these skills are relatively new, so certainly people coming out of college are addressing the skills gap in what they learn in college to some degree, but there’s also a big challenge around your existing employees. How do you develop the skills they need, or how do they develop the skills they need for this kind of work? And I know there are a lot of initiatives running to develop short courses that bring people in to at least entry level in to some of these digital topics, so you see a lot of things around short courses on data analytics, short courses on digital design, those kinds of things. There’s some of that happening, definitely, but we see there’s still quite a big need in terms of having those courses available to people who are currently in unemployment and so a reskilling agenda as opposed to a core learning agenda, as you would have in a normal college course.

Can you tell us Siemens’ vision of the factory of the future?

It’s very much around the requirement for factories to be flexible and able to customise. We see the factory of the future as being able to address those challenges, having a high degree of automation, digitalisation, so a digital product, digital production design, a digital twin operation, where essentially you have very good visibility of how your plant is running at all times and the effects of changes on the plant in terms of throughput or changes to the environment. We see then the integration of supply chain as really important and so you will see more customer requirements making it to the manufacturing floor more quickly than currently. The classic cycle is customer requirements are understood by sales, it’s put into a forecast and a product redesign. These things take a lot of time and it’s very disjointed. In fact, it should be much more integrated with customer requirements so customers will essentially be giving the requirements straight to the manufacturer.

How long until this is the norm?

This is quite a time away. Examples of this exist already but in terms of the mass market, I think there’s still a bit of time before this happens. Think of very consumer-led organisations - there’s a good example of Adidas running shoes. You can customise a running shoe right now to meet your own design, which will be made directly in the factory for you. We’ve seen that for years in automotive manufacturing where you get to pick the specification you want and then the car is built to spec. So I think we will see that move into businesses that are a little less dynamic over the coming years and I would say the food business is finding that it’s addressing some of those topics already. We see those in more consumer-led businesses are faster to react to it, but you would definitely see as you get further down the supply chain to things like materials to component parts of things. Say white goods in a consumer environment - they will start to move very much from mass production into mass customised production, which essentially we get much more customisation ability at the same price as if you’re buying a series product.

Are digitisation and advanced equipment affecting the types of materials being used within factories?

There’s a lot of potential in additive manufacturing and the benefits include lightweighting, but we are also seeing flexibility around prototyping. There are things that just can’t be made in traditional manufacturing and new materials and 3D printing are helping bring new functions or new physical attributes where it wasn’t possible before. In the consumer space, it gives a lot of design freedom and both the materials and the ability to use those materials has a very positive impact on that. The example I would know is in the power generation business where traditionally veins on a turbine or the blades on a turbine would be made in a casting process. Now you can 3D-print them and it allows you to build internal cooling channels, which you couldn’t have made before in the casting process.

It’s a very good in terms of the performance of the product and you just could not make that with traditional manufacturing, with 3D printing you can make it so we get a smaller or more effective product, but still with the same performance. Those kind of things are really exciting for companies and the ability to really disruptively manufacturer things which weren’t possible either. For me, that’s the most interesting area - not so much optimising what’s currently being made but actually making new things or using completely different processes to make things with more design freedom.

Do you see Brexit having any impact on business and relationships with the global markets?

It’s really hard to know, but what we do know is that Ireland is remaining part of the EU, which really is the landscape in which we work. That gives a level of continuity in terms of how things have been up to now. That said, the UK is also a major trading partner for Ireland and that relationship is really important to us, so I absolutely expect there to be some impact but we still have those relationships - we have global, Europe, and then we have to see how it works out with the UK.