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Introducing the ‘digital toolbox’ approach to digitalisation

Introducing the ‘digital toolbox’ approach to digitalisation

The rate at which manufacturers move forward with their digitalisation strategies will depend on many factors, principally the investment involved and the predisposition of staff to change their working practices. Victoria Van Camp of SKF suggests that a more selective approach, as opposed to embracing an all-encompassing digital enterprise model, is a tactic worth considering.

For many manufacturers, Industry 4.0 conjures up an image of digitalisation as one that entails implementing an all-encompassing, enterprise-wide digital manufacturing model, where fully automated production lines communicate with suppliers and customers alike with little human intervention. This might work for enterprises that are able and willing to make the necessary investment while being blessed with a workforce that is completely flexible in its acceptance of change, but going for an ‘all out’ digital transformation is not for everyone.

Whether the aim is to adapt fully to the Industry 4.0 paradigm or simply cherry pick specific applications from this multi-layered digital manufacturing model, the process of digitalisation is now a fact of life for manufacturers seeking to improve their commercial operations, production scheduling or engineering and maintenance related functions. While many may still be at the earliest stages of adoption, manufacturers across all sectors will be introducing some form of digitalisation to their operations in order to boost their productivity and efficiency, improve product quality or rationalise their supply chain activities.

Of course, it may be tempting to adopt a digitalisation strategy that covers all of these needs at a stroke; however, the better approach might be to aim for a particular level of digitalisation by dipping into, let’s call it, a ‘digital toolbox’, and selecting from the many available technologies to achieve specific goals. The ‘digital toolbox’ can be viewed as a suite of products and services, such as sensors, measurement equipment and reporting software, that can be individually selected – when needed and where their implementations have been carefully planned and explained to all involved – in order to improve the enterprise’s overall performance and efficiency.

A prime area for digitalisation and, specifically, the digital toolbox approach to digitalisation is condition monitoring and, in particular, condition-based maintenance, which can have a hugely positive impact on machine reliability and availability. Digital technologies have been developed that are able to take what is essentially a relatively simple maintenance tool beyond that of instantaneous machine health monitoring aid to one that opens up new horizons for plant operations and maintenance, including algorithms that predict machine health trends, and on which future maintenance scheduling can confidently be based.

Where condition-based maintenance is concerned, a decision has to be made as to which level of sophistication is appropriate to a particular plant or machine. An assessment of asset criticality is usually highest on the agenda, while budgetary constraints and other operational requirements may have to be factored in. As is the case when deciding on an appropriate level of enterprise digitalisation. There are several stages to the decision making process: analyse the consequences of asset failure, the costs of repair and replacement or lost productivity, the impact on staff safety or the environment, for example; and if those assets are remotely located, what additional costs and risks are involved?

SKF can help manufacturers in this decision making process by offering a tiered approach to condition-based maintenance, which allows users to adopt a level of sophistication, for example, ‘basic’, ‘better’ or ‘best’, dependent upon asset criticality, budgets and other considerations. The company is also currently helping its customers to introduce digitalisation strategies at a pace with which they are happy to proceed, importantly, without them having to carry the burden of large capital investments. Instead, all necessary infrastructures needed to gather, process and act upon the data are included within an all-inclusive service package. SKF's ‘Rotation for Life’ model, for example, is a performance-based contract that enables a company to move at its own chosen pace towards digitalisation by paying a monthly fixed fee for digital technologies that are purpose designed to improve both performance and availability of rotating equipment.

Big data might usefully define industrial performance in its broadest sense, but big data must be properly interpreted if this vast store of information is to be of any practical use to the industrial customer. While digital technology implementations are vital for data gathering and number crunching, it is that remote diagnostic capability (using the expertise of companies) that can make all the difference between simply assessing equipment performance locally in real time and having these data expertly interpreted at a remote location and translated into effective maintenance recommendations.

It is a fact that industrial customers struggle with the volumes of data generated as a result of digital technology implementation and they are reluctant to be burdened further. This is often symptomatic of having approached the process of digitalisation without due regard for how their data is ultimately to be used. In such cases, it can be recommended that the customer conducts a process audit, taking advantage of their process knowledge and process data which are vital to the understanding of how a machine is currently performing, and how that performance might be improved for the future.

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