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Developing digital capability: how any factory can be smart

Author : Dan Rossek, Regional Marketing Manager at Omron

30 April 2021

While the view conjured up by thoughts of smart factories is often one of pristine green field sites with the latest technologies in place, the reality for many manufacturers is very different. Legacy equipment and unconnected lines are more often the norm, along with a wide variety of technologies and differing levels of capability. However, the benefits of digitalisation can be enjoyed by any manufacturer, as Omron explains.

When we refer to digitalisation capability, we are really talking about the ability to interface data at line level – typically from machine level devices – and escalate it into the IT world. 

Many manufacturing sites will have a disparate range of legacy machines that perform their function well and in many cases, efficiently, but do not offer any digitalisation capability. 

In a 2013 report, The All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group suggested that this was a result of the British culture of taking pride in making things last as long as possible, contrary to the culture of some other countries that take pride in having the latest equipment.

The challenge this creates today is that when these legacy lines were commissioned, the benefits of collecting data at line level or integrating it with the IT level wasn't understood, and many systems were designed with basic logic functions, using simple analogue I/O.

This creates challenges for manufacturers looking to start their smart factory journey. 

In addition, some sectors, like food and beverage, can find it hard to justify the investment in technology, where short-term contracts make long-term investment a risk. Plus, most manufacturers are reluctant to disrupt a machine or line if it is working well.

Of course, the most straightforward solution is to retrofit a new control system architecture and place the automation technologies onto it, i.e. maintain a machine’s mechanical structure and update everything else around it. While this is the preferred option for some manufacturers, many factories are not able to pause a line for the time needed to undertake a retrofit.

For this reason, an incremental approach may be more suitable; looking at explicit parts of a machine and establishing what can be achieved with individual improvements.

Defining digitalisation objectives

The starting point of any digitalisation journey is to define a clear set of objectives. Becoming digitalised is not an objective in itself. Generally, the desire to develop digitalisation capabilities will be triggered by challenges or opportunities which have already been identified. For example, is the business operating over its capacity? Are production issues causing missed deadlines? Are parts not being delivered on time? Are there quality issues?

Having a clear, prioritised list of objectives is vitally important to understand what needs to be solved before trying to solve it. This will often involve identifying where the greatest return on investment (ROI) can be made, as this is where the quickest digitalisation wins can be found. This might mean replacing repetitive manual tasks with automated capabilities such as robotics, enabling device condition monitoring for prescriptive maintenance function or understanding the causes of quality issues and updating processes and procedures to eliminate them. 

Understanding the baseline

Next, it is important to analyse the legacy platform by undertaking a technology assessment of plant and capital equipment to establish a baseline of what can already be achieved. In simple terms, this means looking at whether there is any intelligence within the equipment and its wider systems, whether it is connected, and whether it has IT/OT capabilities which can escalate data into the IT domain. For example, many manufacturers have their equipment connected to an ERP system, providing some degree of connected infrastructure.

This stage should identify the types of machines, automation architecture and capabilities that are present to provide a holistic view of the status of the plant. Many SMEs have relatively simple sites, so this need not be an overly complex process.

A technology assessment may identify that the field level data needed to understand any identified challenges may not be available within the existing systems. Typically, manufacturers with legacy equipment do not have the necessary intelligence within their lines. They may know basic information about how many items they produce, but generally, there is no deterministic information such as how productive the line is, how long it is idle or stops for, or how long one part of the machine is waiting for another to finish its process. Deterministic information allows manufacturers to build a level of intelligence that can tell them what to change, or what needs to be added to a machine. And the answer may be simple. 

Adding a data acquisition layer

If the baseline analysis identifies insufficient system capability to run the required sensors and capture the data they produce, then a secondary data collection layer, using technologies such as Omron’s Sysmac Automation Platform and field level deterministic sensors, can be added. This can work independently to the machine and not interfere with it in any way. This is a particular advantage with legacy equipment as if something were to go wrong, the original equipment may not be able to be replaced. 

Depending on the machine’s scale, this data collection layer could be a system controller with fieldbus communication that allows I/O to be deployed remotely. Alternatively, a central PLC could be used to collect information. The installation will be relatively straightforward, requiring a modest investment, because it is not actually controlling anything on the machine; it is simply collecting data.

In addition, some or all of this investment could be redeployed further along the journey, when the project moves from identifying problems to managing them. Essentially, manufacturers can benefit from secondary architecture to which other sensors or automation technology can be added in the future. 

The results from the baseline assessment – in terms of scale and investment required to get a facility modernised – could be overwhelming. But remember that an entire site does not need to be tackled in one project. It is far more practical to compartmentalise and prioritise the elements which will give the greatest return, in terms of productivity and efficiency.

In addition, there are several schemes and organisations to help businesses on their journey towards a smart factory. These include the High Value Manufacturing Catapult Centres, which are industry-biased and provide innovation support to businesses. Technology vendors and their integration partners can also provide valuable support.


Capital investment in digitalisation can be de-risked by building in flexibility and agility to enable the solution to adapt to future changes within the business. Modern automation systems have this capability built in, and if they are intelligently employed, users can be sure that they will be able to fulfil future requirements. 

Furthermore, organisations such as Omron are developing different methods of de-risking projects and improving the accessibility of technology, such as through a servitisation approach or alternative financial models. From this perspective, the customer is charged for equipment based on an outcome or performance-based metric, or via a financial leasing solution, as an alternative to a one-off capital investment. This changes the investment decision dynamic from capital costs to operating costs and either solution can offer manufacturers a financial or operation benefit.


Reaping the rewards of a smart factory is definitely not limited to greenfield sites. With the right approach, all manufacturing operations – regardless of the age of the equipment in use – can benefit from developing a digital capability, providing they take the right steps. Namely, to identify the business challenges; define the technology baseline; prioritise the areas for improvement; then engage with a technology vendor, systems integrator or support initiative and create a compelling business case.

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