Schneider Electric: First industrial smart factory in the US opens in Lexington, KY

TechRepublic visited Schneider Electric to learn how the first US smart factory is using automation to improve operational efficiencies.

Schneider Electric: First industrial smart factory in the US opens in Lexington, KY

Operating for more than 60 years with nearly 500 employees, Schneider Electric's Lexington facility reopened its doors on June 13 to reveal how the company has revolutionized its brownfield factory. Modernizing legacy systems is a difficult task, compared to greenfield facilities, which are built from the start with advanced technologies. 

Schneider Electric has opened multiple smart factories around the world in countries including Mexico, China, France, India, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The factory in Lexington, KY is the first smart factory to open in the US. 

SEE: Special report: The rise of Industrial IoT (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The ongoing digital transformation of the manufacturing industry has made such a splash in the enterprise that it sparked a new technological era: The fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0. Spearheading the revolution are connected devices using Internet of Things technology, but technologies including machine learning, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology, nanotechnology, and quantum computing are also making an impact.

IoT is projected to have an economic impact $11 trillion by 2025, according to a recent Particle report, with the manufacturing sector seeing some of the biggest results. The manufacturing industry is using so much IoT that industry professionals have coined the term "Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)," which consists of sensors, wireless networks, and the flow of big data. 

"Connected products are the foundation of everything," said Schneider Electric employee Steve Allmond during a factory tour. 

EcoStruxure solutions

Schneider Electric is leveraging the power of IIoT technology through its EcoStruxure solutions, which extend across six key architectures: Power, data center, building, machine, plant, and grid. The platform aims to deliver safer, efficient, sustainable, reliable results to all users, ultimately enhancing the factory's value, said Kieren McLoughlin, vice president of IoT EcoStruxure at Schneider Electric. 

These architectures undergo three layers of innovation—connected products, edge control, and apps, analytics and services—to reach four major end markets, including building, data center, industry, and grid. 

Using IIoT tools have reduced downtime and cost of operations, as well as allowed factory operators to monitor and troubleshoot systems remotely, said Carlos Villa, vice president industry business at Schneider Electric.  

The factory floor tour showcased 10 of the biggest digital transformation initiatives, all powered by EcoStruxure. These technologies included the auto guided vehicle, resource advisor, power monitoring expert or facility expert, 3D printing, collaborative robots, augmented operator advisor, leand digitization system, digital idea and SIM system, versatility management system, and Aveva Insights platform. 

Success and hardships

Schneider Electric has been working to make the most of its data, since "data is the new currency for optimization," said McLoughlin. 

Schneider Electric manufactures load centers and safety switches for its clients, and because of the IIoT implementation, the factory has seen a 20% reduction in mean time to repair and a 90% paperwork elimination. The factory is able to produce 8,000 to 9,000 load centers per day, and 3 million load centers per year, according to Luis Ortega, automation and control engineer at Schneider Electric

Through this technology, the factory is driving end-to-end efficiency, enabling the right information to reach the right people in the right place and time, McLoughlin added.

However, this process didn't come without its difficulties. "The biggest challenge is defining clearly your business objectives," Villa said. "Don't deploy technology just for the sake of technology."

"Start with defining the problem you are trying to solve," he added. "Then, keep in mind, moving into IIoT does not have to be a large project that expands throughout the whole enterprise. You can start with a modular approach do some proof of concepts with the key bottlenecks or pain points in your process."

For more, check out The Industrial Internet of Things: A guide to deployments, vendors, and platforms, on our sister site ZDNet. 

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