Data integration in the transparent factory

Interreg Factory 4.0


An important aspect of the demonstrator in the Smart & Digital Factory Application Lab in Kortrijk is data integration. Connecting the different elements of production systems is one of the six skills of a smart, agile factory.

Six skills 

We’ll have a closer look at the six skills:

1. Manage complexity

Manufacturers are increasingly faced with a growing demand for flexibility and agility. Production systems must be able to deal with higher levels of complexity. Increasing complexity not only means that products and production processes have become more complex (e.g. more product variants, products that are more difficult to make), the business context is also becoming increasingly uncertain and unpredictable. Mass product markets have evolved into highly competitive, customer-driven markets, where the company is not only driven by efficiency improvements, but where product innovations are regularly introduced to satisfy demanding, sometimes volatile customers. Handling complexity, uncertainty and unpredictability is becoming an increasingly important skill.

2. Support operators in their task

In such a context, we see that, in addition to skills in which machines typically excel (e.g. speed, precision and consistency), more and more human skills (creativity, problem solving ability and versatility) are becoming crucial. Redesigning the task content of ‘Operator 4.0’ is a major challenge in the transformation of complex organisations. Technology makes it possible to develop new working and cooperation methods and to develop new interaction scenarios. The use of cobots or exoskeletons can take away the physical burden and at the same time deliver a more consistent quality and an increase in productivity.   

3. The possibility of ‘first-time-right’ quality

Cognitive assistance systems such as pick-to-light systems, digital work instructions and augmented reality (AR) can also result in a win-win story. More specifically by linking the reduction of the cognitive burden to quality and productivity improvements.

4. Increase speed and agility

Quick response manufacturing (QRM) is an interesting recipe for improving the speed and agility of an organisation, both in the workshop and in the office environment (Q-ROC). An important principle here is the creation of self-directed or self-organising teams that are assigned broader tasks and take on more controlling tasks. This is how a complex organisation evolves, in which complex control systems are needed to control and coordinate a lot of simple tasks in many different workplaces, into a relatively simple organisation that needs to coordinate relatively few (but broader and more complex) tasks.

5. Create transparency

"Don’t move information to authority, move authority to information" is the motto of a transparent organisation. Tailor-made operator dashboards provide the right amount of information, at the right time, in the right place to the operators on the shop floor. The same applies to the production manager, the process engineer, the maintenance technician, the logistics employee and the quality employee. These dashboards allow people to make the right decisions and take the right actions based on the most current and correct information.

6. Connected production systems

Real-time data is required to create such dashboards. This requires digitalisation of the factory, allowing the various production systems to communicate with each other and to enable smoother production.

Digital factory

In the digital factory more and more ‘assets’ are digital and connected. By ‘assets’ we mean products, equipment, PLCs, machines, production lines, as well as complete departments and factories that are connected to each other.

Different ‘assets’ are connected to the Sirris demonstrator: component trays equipped with RFID tags, RFID readers, robots, operator dashboards, AGV, HIM (‘Human Interface Mate’ from Arkite, which provides assistance with assembly tasks), the databases for work instructions and parts lists that are consulted.

Three technologies are used for the integration of the various ‘assets’: Thingworx, Node-Red and MQTT.

By means of the IoT platform Thingworx data is aggregated from various sources. In this way, dashboards were designed according to the operator’s needs. These dashboards have a consistent ‘look-and-feel’ that is reflected in every workstation. This helps to ensure that employees are able to operate multifunctionally at different workstations more quickly.

Node-Red is an open-source programming environment that allows you to define data streams in a very simple drag-&-drop way. In this way, data from a wide variety of data sources (devices, machines, databases, tweets, e-mails, URLs,...) can be combined. A large library of predefined ‘nodes’ makes code writing almost unnecessary.

MQTT is a machine-to-machine (M2M) IoT connectivity protocol. It is an example of a publish/subscribe communication protocol. Reports are characterised by a ‘topic’ (subject) and a ‘payload’ (content). The MQTT ‘broker’ ensures that a ‘client’ that subscribes to a specific ‘topic’ only receives this type of notifications. This makes it easier to create applications because the client application can interact with different types of data sources in a very simple and consistent way.

Even though the three IoT technologies Thingworx, Node-Red and MQTT are rarely used in industrial environments, they do indicate a trend that will increase in importance in the coming years. The speed and agility with which new applications can be developed are the main advantages of such industrial IoT platforms.

This blog is published in the context of the Interreg project Factory 4.0.