Establishing a smart factory architecture

01 July 2021

An open-access digital architecture for manufacturing shop floors has simplified the way data can be handled across an organisation, showing how manufacturers of any size can build a scalable, fully connected smart factory.

Factory+, designed by digital engineers at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), provides an open framework to standardise and simplify the way valuable data is extracted, transported, stored, processed, consumed and protected across a manufacturing organisation.

Following an initial Literature Review to evaluate the current landscape, engineers in the AMRC’s Factory 2050 have now written a Specification, a technical document outlining the high-level concepts and architecture of Factory+, and an Implementation Guide, a step-by-step instruction manual for deploying it.

Together, the documents shape how an organisation could design a smart factory by demonstrating good architecture principles and approaches including openness, efficiency, security and scalability.

Manufacturing is starting a journey to the cloud and the Factory+ architecture removes many of the barriers to that migration

Dr Rikki Coles, Theme Lead for Connectivity and Artificial Intelligence (AI) at Factory 2050, says Factory+ lays solid foundations from which organisations can build.

“It gets your house in order,” says Rikki. “Factory+ is an enabler for Industry 4.0, so the question for a production facility looking at this specification isn’t really ‘How can Factory+ benefit me?’, it is ‘How can Industry 4.0 make a more profitable and leaner organisation?’

“With data all standardised and stored in one place that can be accessed in a matter of seconds, rather than hours, businesses can look to exploit it more efficiently and acquire manufacturing insights from their data faster than ever before.

“Manufacturing is starting a journey to the cloud and the Factory+ architecture removes many of the barriers to that migration; hopefully it will accelerate the adoption of cloud technologies within the sector. However, it is also edge-driven so the architecture fully supports on-prem, cloud, or hybrid deployments.”

At Factory 2050, the Factory+ architecture has been used to connect the AMRC’s smart tools, robots, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and computer numerical control (CNC) machines. In just four months, six cells transmitted over 1 billion data points with capacity for much more.

Dr Rikki Coles, Theme Lead for Connectivity and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in IMG.

“Factory+ has had two drivers from the beginning – one was operational within the AMRC and the other was a demand from industry,” said Alex Godbehere, Technical Fellow for Smart Factories at the AMRC.

“At Factory 2050, we recognised that organic silos of approaches to how data was collected and stored were developing. Different project teams, working with different partners and using different pieces of equipment might all have their own way of collecting data.

“We saw this vision for a standardised way that devices could be connected on the shop floor, which would mean data could be extracted consistently and stored in the same format. We needed an abstract architecture that was always online, could collect the data, standardise it and store it in a permanent, central database.”

Alex says the second motivation was seeing manufacturing organisations attempting to unlock the reduced operational costs, increased agility and improved productivity of Industry 4.0 technology adoption, but becoming stuck because they were using Industry 3.0 architectures that simply weren’t scalable.

“A shop floor is often made up of discrete connections to disparate applications with each one requiring a different adaptor or protocol. This works fine in silos, but as an organisation grows their requirements grow and it becomes a spider web of connections,” said Alex.

“If a business wants to scale up it becomes messy, difficult to maintain and too expensive to upgrade, so what we see is architectures stagnate and that is where security vulnerabilities start to creep in. Ultimately what happens is the company doesn’t scale up because it lacks the solid, scalable foundations. Architectures like Factory+ solve this problem by adopting the concept of connecting devices to infrastructure, rather than to each other.”

The AMRC team’s Literature Review, Specification and Implementation Guide live on the publicly accessible Factory+ portal so any manufacturer can study the architecture, implement it and start to benefit. A comprehensive documentation pack covers everything from node management and monitoring, to protocol translation and data mapping.

For smaller companies it is affordable, relatively simple and you can use it tomorrow without spending a penny.

Factory+ is an implementation of the Sparkplug specification, which provides an open and freely available specification for how devices and applications communicate bi-directionally within a Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT) infrastructure. The specification aims to define an MQTT topic namespace, MQTT state management, and MQTT payload targeted towards real time SCADA/IIoT solutions.

Sparkplug is a project within the Eclipse Foundation which is an independent, not-for-profit organisation, currently host to 400 open source projects and 17 working groups which underpin many of the key digital technologies and initiatives used all over the world.

The University of Sheffield is part of the Eclipse Foundation and both Alex and Rikki are on the Sparkplug working group. Alex says that means the AMRC, part of the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult, is both adopting the specification and driving it forward.

He said: “We are trying to accelerate the adoption of these technologies and approaches and because this is free and open, organisations can deploy the architecture as a pilot to see if it works.

“That makes it very attractive to SMEs because they can get on the first rung of the ladder without having to pay an integrator thousands of pounds for a proof-of-concept. For smaller companies it is affordable, relatively simple and you can use it tomorrow without spending a penny.

“But this isn’t just applicable to SMEs. For larger companies, there is the flexibility of not being locked into one hardware vendor, and Factory+ can scale up and integrate with their existing architecture. It really can be used by two engineers in their shed or global heavyweights.”

Arlen Nipper, President and CTO at Cirrus Link and co-inventor of MQTT, has championed Factory+.

“If you are considering starting your digital transformation journey, regardless of the industry you are in, the Factory+ Specification is a fantastic place to start,” said Arlen.

“The document presents a concise blueprint for a common-sense approach to applying modern MQTT and Sparkplug technologies to existing infrastructures and equipment. Regardless of where you are in your implementation, this is definitely an excellent framework approach to consider.

“Continuing on from the Specification, the Implementation Guide is a great way to explore specifics and experiment with actual MQTT Sparkplug infrastructure. It is a great read that I would highly recommend.”

If you are considering starting your digital transformation journey the Factory+ Specification is a fantastic place to start

Rikki says the Factory+ project is by no means finished with ambitious plans for the next 12 months.

He said: “We have proved Factory+ as a concept and have implemented it in Factory 2050, so the next stage is to roll it out across the entire AMRC to demonstrate that our best principles work on a much larger scale.

“Alongside that expansion, a next step for us is starting to make informed decisions from the data we are collecting and storing, demonstrating how secure Factory+ is from a cyber security point of view to improve trust in the area, and understanding how this can integrate with both brownfield and greenfield installations used by our partners and other UK manufacturers.

“Factory+ is like an organism: sustained by data, supporting an intelligence, hardened by security, and evolving according to operational needs. Thanks to its constituent parts, it is intuitive, flexible, powerful and open. We are now looking for collaborators with whom we can further test and optimise this framework to promote homogeneity and ubiquity within digital manufacturing.”

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