Time for a smarter industry?

Time for a smarter industry?

Industry 4.0, Smart Manufacturing, the Internet of Things. If the buzzwords that reverberated through the hall at WT Europe in November are anything to go by, a revolution in tobacco manufacturing has begun. Digitalisation is coming and some say it will change everything…

A delegation of techies in identical orange jackets, a huge screen giving a virtual tour of a cigarette factory in China and a man standing in front of it wearing a VR headset. This was the scene that greeted visitors to Chinese high-tech company Hualong Xunda Information Technology’s stand in Hamburg.

The purpose of this unusual display was to show off the company’s new 3D visualisation-based smart manufacturing system for primary and secondary processing. Once installed, this system creates a virtual version of the factory floor and its real-time operations. Every machine which has been connected up to the system is visible within the digital twin in a huge level of detail. Users can zoom in on the internal workings of a particular machine as it operates. The system also allows companies to control and observe their factory floors virtually from anywhere in the world. Bystanders were able to watch every cigarette as it was churned out in China without moving from the purple-carpeted exhibition hall in Hamburg.

“Our system is an intelligent automation system, comprising three elements – a data collection system, a 3D visualisation system and a remote management system,” Chairwoman Hualong Xunda, Sally Wu, told TJI. “It is not only connected to the machine. It is also connected to the Management Information System (MIS).”

The brain of the factory, the system is constantly collecting and generating data about the machinery which it can use to identify problems in production. If there is a breakdown or other issue, the offending equipment in the virtual factory glows red. The system also uses this data to track the wear and tear of parts. This means it is able to make suggestions about where machine maintenance may soon be required – pre-empting costly repairs and above all, saving time. “Without this system, when an engineer needs to repair a machine, they have to find out what the problem is,” Wu said. “It may be a tiny problem but they have to read the instructions. It will perhaps take half a day, or even a day, to find out what the issue is. But with this system, you can solve the problem in seconds.”

Having provided automation systems for the cigarette industry since 2003, Hualong has intimate knowledge of all the machines in use in the tobacco industry in China and the rest of the world and their corresponding electronics. This makes it easy for the company to extract data from equipment of any kind and build it into to the new 3D smart system. “Some of our engineering team have 20 years’ experience in the tobacco industry,” Wu told TJI. “So we are very familiar with automation systems used in this industry – of all the machines.”

So what prompted Hualong to develop the smart system? “We decided we would like to develop something so our customers can have access to information about every detail of a machine,” she said. It started work on this one element at a time.

“From 2004, we put our efforts into developing the data collection system,” Wu explained. “And in 2008, we began to assemble our engineering team to develop this visualisation system.” Hualong Xunda is, she says, the first company in China to create this kind for manufacturing system. The idea owes something to the concept of “Industry 4.0” originally a German government initiative which promotes computerisation and “interconnectedness” in manufacturing systems.

“In China, the tobacco industry is very up to date and every machine is very new. And they are very well-equipped with all the new machines. This industry is leading the world. With this in mind, we took the concept of Industry 4.0 and decided we wanted to realise it in the tobacco industry,” Wu explained.

Hualong has already sold a large number of its smart systems in China. “When new machines are produced in China, they are all already equipped with our system,” she said. As usual, however, the rest of the world is lagging behind. “Up to now, we haven’t seen anyone in the rest of the world equipped with such a system.” The company attended the fair in Hamburg to remedy this. And it was in luck. By day three, Hualong’s intelligent manufacturing system had – unsurprisingly – garnered interest from tobacco companies all over the world.

When it comes to global expansion, Hualong has a helping hand. Spare parts manufacturer and special solutions provider, TMQS (Tobacco Machinery Quality Spares) has been the Chinese company’s international partner for many years. Hualong provides the software and electronic kits for TMQS customers, while TMQS itself provides the mechanical hardware. Now, as Hualong’s exclusive partner ouside China, the German company is helping Hualong spread the word about its smart manufacturing technology with the goal to have the system installed in factories all over the world.

Wu believes the future of manufacturing lies in her company’s intelligent systems.

“Today, many people here at the fair are the leaders of a factory in their country,” she said. “Yet they don’t know what is happening in their factory right now from this side of the world. With our system, however, they could know. This is the trend. This is the future.”

Only connect

Hualong’s intelligent system is just one example of a much bigger change coming to the manufacturing sector. Europeans call it “Industry 4.0”; Americans call it the “Industrial Internet of Things (IIot)”; others call it simply “Smart Manufacturing”. Broadly speaking, it is the digitalisation of industry. So what is behind this concept?

As Hualong’s system demonstrates, the trend is characterised by an increased level of interconnectedness between systems, an acceleration of processes and the sophisticated use of data. “The number of ‘things’ in manufacturing today that are connected to a network and that generate and consume data is growing exponentially,” Ralf Sonnefeld, executive vice president at software manufacturer Xavo, also exhibiting in Hamburg, explained. “In order to make the most of the data generated, it needs to be processed in order to become actionable information. The business value of the information increases when it is made accessible from everywhere to everybody who needs it.”

Evidence of this trend is not difficult to find in other aspects of life. You can now control everything from your central heating to your bank account from your phone. More and more everyday objects (or “things” hence the “Internet of Things”) are now “smart”. And we, as consumers of this technology, just keep demanding more.

Sonnefeld believes the revolution began in the late 1990s, early 2000s – around the time everyone was anxious about the “millennium bug”. It is only now, however, that we are experiencing the real “disruption” that these new technologies can bring to traditional markets. In 2007, the iPhone changed the face of the mobile phone industry. A few years on and Airbnb has well and truly “disrupted” the hotels industry and an app has steamrollered the taxi business. The question is, Sonnefeld says, “Who’s going to be Uber’d next?”
The tobacco industry is certainly not immune. “Digitalisation will change manufacturing profoundly and there will be winners and losers,” he continued. “Eventually it is going to come to tobacco and it is going to change the industry profoundly.”

His advice? “Be part of the movement rather than fighting it.”

Xavo Plant Scheduling

Sonnefeld believes the key to this lies in software. “Develop your own digitalisation strategy in which the application of software is the key ingredient,” he said. Luckily, this is exactly what Xavo makes. The company’s Xavo Plant Scheduling (XPS) software, showcased in Hamburg, has been designed to help tobacco manufacturers embrace the imminent changes.

XPS is a real-time factory management system that delivers the two hallmarks of digitalisation: acceleration of processes and sophisticated data management. According to the company, “it enables the efficient planning and execution of production, inventory and quality control operations in real time.”

This notion that technology should function and respond to scenarios in “real time” is a characteristic of this manufacturing revolution. “It’s about making faster decisions, working concurrently, better collaboration, and generally speaking, being able to navigate more loops in less time,” Sonnefeld said.

“We look at the entire supply chain, we look at what happens at every stage. We collect data and derive something useful from it. We collect data from what’s happening in the machine, what’s happening in the line, what’s happening in terms of inventory. We ask the warehouse system what’s in the inventory because depending on that, we might make suggestions on how much of what to produce and when to produce it.”

Xavo’s software also uses the data it collects to predict the future. According to the company, XPS is able to forecast production behaviour based on real-time and historical data and make proposals to prevent future material flow conflicts. It also makes it possible to plan ‘what if’ scenarios while production is running.

The software was designed using intelligent algorithms (Xavo employs a number of mathematicians). These synchronise automatic and manual processes in real-time and provide a platform for optimisation and continuous improvement. In layman’s terms, this means the system can react to any sudden or unexpected changes to the production plan and offer users the most speedy and efficient solution.

In terms of user interface, the XPS system comprises two “views”. The first, known as the “timeline view” is a series of interactive Gantt charts with a “now” line which moves along in real time as production is executed. “This view of the software shows you everything along a timeline. You can show equipment, you can show people. You can show inventory. You can show a relation between those things over time,” Sonnefeld explained.

The second view is known as the “Work-flow execution” view. It shows the actions that need to be taken by the operator in the order necessary. This changes automatically according to the situation and action required.

According to Sonnefeld, this is useful for two reasons: it can guide users on what they should be doing now and next as part of an overall collaboration, and it allows them to plan and to react to change at a level that fits their role.

“We want to give these tools to everybody involved. We want everybody in the plant, regardless of role, to have it,” Sonnefeld said. The company reflects this belief in its licensing model which is by production cell rather than by individual user. This means the price of the software depends on the size of production rather than the number of users.

In addition to supporting existing production models across the supply chain – from leaf to retail – XPS software can also be used to assist in product research and development. “We talk to the pilot plants. We ask, what can we do to help you bring new ‧variants to market faster?” Sonnefeld said.

Xavo and tobacco

Despite designing software for use in a number of sectors, Xavo has particular ‧expertise in the tobacco manufacturing sector. The company was actually founded by ‧tobacco veterans. Its three creators built t‧he first manufacturing execution system that BAT ever had and, realising they could also do it for others, went on to found Xavo in 2000. Around 50 per cent of the company’s business is still done in the tobacco ‧industry. Current clients include JTI and BAT.

“What makes us unique is that we have this combination of skills and know-how,” ‧Sonnefeld said. “We know about tobacco, manufacturing processes, manufacturing and production in general. We know about IT. And we know how to build software.”

The company also prides itself on its ability to stay ahead of the curve. “If somebody in the tobacco industry is interested in talking about digitalisation, and what that can do for them or to them, I think Xavo is a pretty good partner to talk to,” he said.

In terms of the future, Sonnefeld believes the tobacco manufacturing industry will move towards managing production plants on a global scale rather than in each individual ‧facility. At the rate technology is advancing, we will soon find out if he is right.

Source: Sophie Bullen / Tobacco Journal International 6/2016