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SSG Insight: the rise of the intelligent factory

intelligent factory

Could you please begin by giving me a little background information to SSG Insight, telling me more about the business and its products, particularly in relation to the manufacturing, risk management and ‘smart’ processes.

SSG Insight started in 1983 with an ambition and an excitement about how the desktop PC could change workflow. 35 years later, with our Computerised Maintenance Management Software products, we have built knowledge and experience unrivalled in the industry. And we realise our success relies on us being one step ahead.

Facing new challenges, we adapt our company to focus on delivering key value and insight – guiding our customers to make intelligent decisions. Agility is a maintenance management solution for forward-thinking organisations, so you can quickly respond to change and make better-informed decisions on the spot, saving time and valuable resources. AUTOagility is an end-to-end work management solution that incorporates a clever, structured question-based approach to capturing details of work and an automatic deployment feature to remove the manual decision-making included in finding the best member of your team to do the job. Our most recent software release, AgilityBI, gives you a deeper understanding of your operation including trend data over time, so you can make faster, smarter decisions to improve your business performance.

So, we can understand more about ‘Agility’ can you give us more detail about the drivers behind developing such a solution, what the key considerations were in terms of making it a market-leading product and how versatile its application field is?

Our 35 years’ experience gives us insight into the requirements of key industries.  Flexibility and versatility were two of the key drivers. Our vision for Agility is to be “the most user friendly, insightful and futureproof solution for managing assets, processes and people”. Agility is used in global industries as diverse as manufacturing, distribution, transport and infrastructure and healthcare.

Let’s focus more on the idea of so-called ‘smart’ or ‘digital’ factories and manufacturing processes, can you give some context as to how these have developed and why they are of such benefit to manufacturers, corporations and employees?

Smart or digital factories have their roots in the SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) technologies, which was a forerunner to IoT and 5G technology. Like IoT in a domestic setting, it’s about linking equipment so that it can intelligently communicate to automate action, optimise processes and result in better outcomes. 

Customers that adopt smart and connected technology in a production setting can:

  • Reduce downtime of key assets and equipment
  • Reduce unscheduled maintenance
  • Reduce stock held, administration and costs
  • Improve the reliability of equipment and rate of work orders completed on time
  • Make more efficient use of employee time

Can you simplify the technology and process so we can give an overview of just ‘how’ the smart factory works compared to traditional technology?

In a traditional factory you have to wait for something to break before you fix it.  Or schedule periodic equipment checks. In a smart factory you can fix it before it breaks because the equipment will tell you when it’s feeling poorly. As a comparison, rather than waiting until you run out of milk or just buying it once a week, your fridge will tell you when you are running low and need to buy more. The principle is similar in a factory setting. 

How essential is a product such as Agility in achieving a true smart manufacturing process?

Agility is an essential part of the smart factory landscape. Advanced scheduling and resource management capabilities allow the smart factory to deploy the correct resources to intelligently correct issues before they cause downtime. It means that the process runs continuously and doesn’t have to stop because of unplanned downtime.

Obviously, such a factory or manufacturing process requires a complex IoT – what role does Agility play in such a network in terms of overall operational process?

Agility takes the sensory readings from key equipment and turns it into actionable insight. Based on the health or otherwise of equipment, maintenance work can be scheduled and completed. A record of each piece of work is automatically recorded along with other key information to produce trend data that can be used to make smart planning decisions. 

Can you tell me more about how that interconnected actual process works, and what role humans have in it?

The equipment will indicate how healthy it is based on certain parameters. When a certain threshold is reached Agility will trigger agility to create the most appropriate remedial action. That will most often be a work order directing a qualified human maintenance engineer to carry out some activity. 

In a factory or manufacturing context, what are the main parameters that Agility monitors?

Common parameters are temperature, vibration, noise, electric current, smell etc. It will often depend on the nature of the operation and customer. With AgilityBI you can make sense of the myriad of data points to create intelligent insight, tracking trends over time and unlocking the value in IoT data.

Presumably a large part of developing a product for such a complex task is to reduce that complexity so it can be easily managed – how has that been achieved?

Agility is designed to do the complex work in the background, making things simple and easy for the individual users.  The user experience delivers the optimum display of information for that user, based on their job profile and workload, minimising screen views, fields, clicks and saving time. Individual user personas can be configured to deliver just the right functionality and data at the right time, on a mobile device, laptop or PC. 

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What benefits does the use of Agility and other smart technologies bring to manufacturers, and their assets? How has it had such a marked impact on lessening downtime, for example?

Based on an analysis of our customer data, Agility allows you to reduce breakdowns and downtime by up to 32%, improve response times by 53%, reduce stick held by 19% and reduce administration by 60%. 

I understand there are health and safety benefits too, can you elaborate?

The health and safety aspects are critical and multifaceted. Maintaining health and safety equipment such as fire alarms, sprinklers, extinguishers etc. is part of it, plus ensuring people allocated to carry out any type of work are qualified, trained and have the necessary background and operating instructions for the relevant equipment.

One of the main objectives of Health and Safety Management is to protect people from harm.  Identifying who could be harmed because of potential hazards is a key part of driving the risk assessments and risk management. Certain individuals may have factors which increase their risk of harm. For example, new and young workers, migrant workers, new or expectant mothers, people with disabilities, temporary workers, contractors, homeworkers and lone workers.

Often the risk is controlled by education, and therefore training and certification with regular review and renewal plays a vital role in the Agility system and serves to ensure that suitably trained personnel are commissioned to carry out particular tasks, or work on certain equipment.

Non-permanent staff such as visitors, contractors and third-party maintenance workers are identified through Agility. These workers need particular training to ensure they are aware of risks which they may not be familiar with.

Where do you see Agility developing in the future and are you looking to develop other products for similar applications? If so what are your areas of focus?

Our vision for Agility is to be “the most user-friendly, insightful and futureproof solution for managing assets, processes and people”.

Areas of focus for future development are Smart Action, Intelligent Insight and evolving the smart workplace management solution. Areas of planned investment include machine learning and artificial intelligence, creating even richer insight and better real-time decision making. 

Where do you see the concept of Industry 4.0 and smart factories heading over the coming years?

Various technologies will combine to create a multiplier effect. Nano technology, 3D printing, cloud connected automated factories will lead to lower costs, increased efficiency, but intense global competition.   Less need for traditional manufacturing equipment and scale, replaced by new tech, will bring geographic democratisation, as barriers to entry are lowered, new entrants will enter the market and drive further innovation. 

Economies of scale and physically connected supply chains will become less important, as customisation will become more cost effective, leading to less need for uniformity and standard products based on minimum unit costs. It will ultimately be possible to produce customised finished product in units of one, for a similar unit cost to large quantities of standard product.  

Self-healing factories will see components able to proactively fix themselves, before a problem arises with continuous production the norm. It will be driven through automation and AI with even less need for human intervention in all but the most strategic tasks. 

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