What makes a digital factory possible and also successful? Industry 4.0 and digital factories are characterized by highly complex processes that do not develop in a linear fashion and certainly not in the traditional organizational structure. Nor do they stop at departmental or company boundaries. In our BloQ article, we show which role quality management plays in the implementation of a digital factory.
First, let’s take a closer look at the term “digital factory”. The VDI (Association of German Engineers) defines it as follows: “The digital factory is the generic term for a comprehensive network of digital models, methods and tools – including simulation and three-dimensional visualization, which are integrated through end-to-end data management. Its goal is the holistic planning, evaluation and ongoing improvement of all essential structures, processes and resources of the real factory in connection with the product.” (VDA) Accordingly, the digital factory comprises digital measures and instruments with which processes and products can be mapped virtually. Parallel to the real factory, an image is to be created with which development, planning and production can be represented digitally.
This concept is becoming increasingly important, particularly in the context of Industry 4.0. The digital factory addresses the topics of automation and networked production. It is no surprise that this also places completely new demands on quality management. After all, projects are supported in particular by committed employees from the quality management department. Quality assurance in the digital factory is automated, cross-process, cross-departmental, and requires the correct handling of large volumes of data. Quality managers can contribute their expertise to the transformation and drive it forward within the company.
The entire quality process must be adapted to the digital environment in the context of the digital factory. What reads so easily is a mammoth task in practice. Changed product specifications from the customer, batch size 1, product-specific inspection plans – just some of the challenges the modern quality manager has to face. Their actions are oriented less to the classic organizational structure and more to the possibilities of digitalized processes. Against this background, digitalization is not only a challenge, but also an opportunity. Once the processes have been digitized, the employees responsible benefit from significantly faster processes that are also less susceptible to (human) errors thanks to automation.
The digital factory is basically a large, self-learning machine in which individual parts already know what they will later become. However, for the transformation of quality management in such a Digital Factory to work at all, the human factor is crucial. The link between the digital and the real world requires specialists who are very familiar with the company’s processes, are customer-oriented and are trained to balance interested parties.
The fact that progressive digitalization in quality management is not an end in itself is already evident from the benefits for the workforce. Beyond that, however, a digital factory offers great opportunities for companies and ultimately also for customers. Ideally, product quality increases significantly, and zero-defect production becomes more realistic and economically justifiable. Properly implemented, the digital factory offers extraordinary data transparency about product characteristics, manufacturing parameters and field data. Product design can be optimized in relation to customer requirements and according to the conditions of use. It is also easier and faster to adjust manufacturing parameters – both in terms of product quality and manufacturing efficiency.
Nevertheless, the motto should not be “digitalization at any price”. Each company must decide for itself which version of a digital factory is even worth considering. The cost-benefit ratio must ultimately be right. That’s why it’s mainly large companies that rely on technology. One thing is certain, however: if you want to position your company for the future and sustainably, you have to learn to use your workforce and technologies differently in the future. The old familiar will inevitably be thrown overboard; agile working methods will find their way into the company. So it is not primarily a matter of new technologies or software solutions (although these do, of course, have a considerable influence on the new process flows), but rather the digital factory requires a methodical rethinking – also in quality management.