How to Optimize Your Factory Layout for Industry 4.0

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Believe it or not, Industry 4.0 — the latest specialization for modern factories and manufacturing plants — does factor into the design and factory layout. That is because digitization, or the current movement to connect and bring all equipment into modern times, absolutely influences design.

In essence, that is the heart of Industry 4.0, a complete synergy between operations, equipment, properties and, of course, the people who spend their time there. If 3.0 was about automation and boosting efficiency, this generation is about injecting the human touch back into the work environment, and that means accommodating such things from a design standpoint.

Why Design Matters

The general composition of a facility or plant has an incredible impact on operations. Everything from lighting and air quality to efficient design and wayfinding solutions can impact workflow. If workers cannot easily and quickly reach their stations, for instance, that’s going to affect start and end times every day. If working conditions are poor, such as terrible air quality, productivity is going to suffer. And ultimately, the design and factory layout influence all these elements.

Heat, for instance, can be a huge problem if architects don’t factor it into the initial planning and design process. Heavy machinery in factories will often produce excess heat, and when it has nowhere to go, it just builds up, sometimes causing problems with other nearby equipment, or impacting nearby workers. Therefore, dissipation and air flow are things all property designers should take into consideration. That’s why many buildings and properties employ cooling towers to keep airflow optimal within.

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But this is just one element of hundreds — if not thousands — that can make a difference. In design, you also must think about the factory layout and positioning of machinery, walking and open movement spaces, smell or odor removal, air quality, temperatures and so much more.

Industry 4.0 also introduces the connectivity component. Modern systems must retain access to the local network and have a reliable connection — wireless or otherwise. Devices and machinery placed too close can cause interference, and yet many of them must be able to communicate and sync with one another for the sake of automation.

Prioritizing Safety and Efficiency

Modern technology has improved many aspects of legacy hardware and machinery. But the most significant benefit of upgrading to smart, IoT-ready equipment is the boon in security and efficiency.

Sensors embedded within factory equipment and positioned nearby will continuously stream data and information, in real time. That presents an incredible opportunity to boost all operational aspects of a plant, as well as situational awareness for those inside.

Optimizing floor layout during the design phase is vital to ensuring worker safety and improving conditions within a plant. But connected technologies can enhance that even further. Workers can receive real-time alerts about hazardous environments or plant regions, temperature readings and even conditional notifications — for instance, about an edge being sharp or dangerous.

It also establishes smart, aware and remotely accessible systems which can update workers when conditions change. If a machine is close to failure, related warnings will go out often to mobile devices each worker carries on their person. That helps prioritize maintenance — especially preventive — but it also protects those working within the vicinity.

Awareness and knowledge also improve efficiency. Factory managers can accurately discern what equipment is working correctly, what isn’t and where there is room for improvement. More importantly, this provides an accurate, measurable system for determining optimal equipment and conditions. If a setup is causing issues, the data will show it, and workers can use it to predict and identify solutions.

A Welcome Side Effect: Communication Boost

Connected, aware systems will regularly contribute reliable and relevant information. That allows project managers and plant supervisors to make better, more informed decisions. But it also provides a boost in communication and collaboration between the entirety of the workforce.

Maintenance and repair personnel can better understand and communicate with active workers. Those workers can better communicate and portray experiences to management. And managers can measure, track and update any and all equipment in real time, at the simple tap of a finger.

There will be challenges and setbacks, but improved technology will help minimize those over time. For instance, IoT hardware requires an active connection can grind operations to a halt if it gets interrupted. Lessening downtime will help the systems remain operational and keep the data flowing.

Optimizing Factory Layout: Data Efficiency First

Back to the concept of design, what is the most important thing to consider when planning or developing a factory layout for Industry 4.0-enabled factories?

The first thing to understand is that legacy, or “dumb,” machinery must remain accessible if it’s not already. Any components that do not have IoT capabilities will need to remain separate from those that do. Preferably, this means keeping them in an area of the plant maintenance crews and operators can access easily.

Moving on to IoT and connected machinery, it doesn’t necessarily matter where these systems are, even more so if they do not require an active operator or direct supervisor. What does matter is how reliable their network or wireless connection is. This artery, so to speak, will allow updated systems, controls and monitoring tools to sync up with the equipment.

You could argue this calls for prioritizing data efficiency and wireless connections at the design phase. While this is undoubtedly true, it brings up the question: Why is data so important?

How Data Improves Operations

At the heart of Industry 4.0 is a stream of digital stats and information — what we refer to as data. Data comes in many forms and is useful for many reasons. And it is the end-all, be-all of Industry 4.0 or digitized systems. It is what makes everything smarter and more aware.

For example, data might explain machine and hardware downtimes, revealing the most common problems and solutions. It might highlight what areas of a factory or plant need updates. It may even show solutions for further improvement, as well as potential changes that can offer considerable benefits.

This is the core of Industry 4.0: smart, connected and aware devices that can explain and inform those involved about what’s happening. In many cases, the data flowing in is raw and facilitates the need for a processing tool or organizational platform. That is where data scientists enter the playing field. They are skilled professionals capable of reading and translating raw, unusable data.

As the factories of today become modernized and get outfitted with more capable, connected equipment, the need for actionable insights and data will continue to grow. Data should be a high priority, alongside the need to understand and make use of it and optimize your factory layout.

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