48 hours to digitalise - How one production plant went remote in just two days

The year 2020 has transformed the way many of us work. While makeshift desks and digital collaboration have been commonplace for many office workers, surely manufacturing employees couldn’t set-up a shop floor from the comfort of their own kitchens — or could they? Digitalising a production facility typically takes years of development, but one Sandvik tube site brought remote manufacturing to its stay-at-home workers in just two days. Here, Thomas Froböse, product unit manager at global engineering group Sandvik, explains how.

In Werther, Germany, Sandvik’s high precision special tubing unit produces steel tubes for instrumentation and high-pressure applications, tubes with specialist surface finishes and even tubes that are destined to go inside the human body.


The site is well-versed at supplying solutions for demanding applications, such as producing thick-walled seamless tube that can resist pressures of up to 160,000 pounds per square inch (psi) with an extremely low amount of defects, or metallic imperfections, within the steel. Or, making tubing that maintains its mechanical properties even while cooling a plasma reactor that operates at 100 million degrees centigrade.


When the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the globe, and caused the shutdown of many manufacturing facilities, the Werther site could not afford a standstill and put its pending customer demands on-hold. With a backlog of orders that couldn’t risk mounting any further, and requests for precision tubes for highly sought-after mechanical ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients, Werther’s engineers needed to act fast.


Thrown in the deep end

Digitalisation continues to transform manufacturing. According to the consultancy network PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), 91 per cent of industrial companies are investing in creating digital factories in the heart of Europe, with efficiency gains listed as the main driver for change. But this change doesn’t happen overnight, and it can often take a facility years to effectively develop a remote working strategy, automate inventory management and benefit from big data pools.


Time was a luxury that the Werther site could ill-afford. To execute a digital transformation in just 48 hours, the tubing facility distributed 90 iPads to its workers’ homes, through which they can connect to a control network that supports the functions of its machines. Now, 90 programmers and automation engineers, which normally work across three shift patterns, continue to operate machinery from the safety of their homes. Just a few mill operators and shift leaders remain onsite.


Board meetings have also been replaced by digital working files, and the site now uses digital documentation to keep track of shift plans and order management.


Remote monitoring solutions provide the operational visibility that the team needs to track performance and make the necessary recommendations, without having to physically be on the factory floor. Data that is made available by the distribution of sensors produces qualitive, real-time and equipment information on equipment, processes and their condition. With this data, workers can understand the facility’s performance and take action without needing to be present in the factory.


A digital agenda

The switch wouldn’t have been possible without previous preparations. The Werther site has been developing its digital strategy for over 20 years, with digital developments that include the integration of paperless records and a digital security application.


Despite already having its digital wheels in motion, like many facilities, Werther didn’t plan on implementing its transformation with such haste. Yet, even with the sudden start, 80 per cent of the facility’s workers have said they are happy with the remote way of working. Several advantages have been identified as a result of the process, including faster communication, and the ability to hear vital updates, in real-time.


If we examine the bigger picture, the characteristics of a digital factory can help enhance wider business objectives. So-called “dark” facilities, for example, which operate almost autonomously and electricity is only consumed on-demand, can help businesses reach sustainability goals by reducing the use of raw materials and utilities.


Another way of connecting factories internally and externally is through a manufacturing execution system (MES), An MES can support the planning and control of production in real-time by sensing or predicting unplanned events, and generating an automatic response or optimisation actions based on analytical data.


The digital pathway

Digitalisation and its associated benefits are not only recognised at the Werther site, but across the whole of Sandvik and its business areas.


Elsewhere in the Materials Technology business area, Sandvik has collaborated with the University of Skövde, Sweden, and Swedish-Finnish steel company SSAB to investigate how the use of artificial intelligence can improve steel production processes and reduce both the costs and environmental impact. Meanwhile, engineers in Sandvik’s Mining and Rock Technology business area are continuously developing new ways to harness mining data and improve the connectedness of technologies, specifically to harness digital solutions for autonomous mining vehicles.


While digitalisation offers a wealth of benefits and possibilities, industry is only just starting unlock them. The Werther site clearly demonstrated that even the speediest of changes can deliver fast advantages. The production site, along with all of Sandvik, will continue on its path towards digitalisation. While Werther showed what can be achieved in just two days, who knows where digitalisation will take us in the years to come?

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