Further digitalisation of technologies such as condition monitoring and smart sensors could revolutionise manufacturing and supply, says Bernie van Leeuwen, director product management, SKF
The ability to collect and manipulate vast amounts of digital information will catapult manufacturing into the future. By embracing digitalization, SKF is enhancing its core offering – bearings technology, and related services – so that our customers can further boost the performance of their rotating equipment. Furthermore, by focusing on industrial digitalization, SKF aims to drive the further optimization of cost and efficiency of the full value chain, including world class manufacturing and supply chain integration.
Digitalisation will affect all parts of the value chain, from design and manufacturing through to purchasing and maintenance.
SKF has been monitoring equipment remotely for around fifteen years now, we now have around 1 million bearings connected to the Cloud. Data from them is gathered and interpreted daily, often with assistance from our experts. The ability to handle this data leads to enhanced analytics – allowing SKF to earlier detect potential failures in rotating equipment that affect overall equipment reliability and to get a better understanding of critical product and system design requirements.
We have already developed platforms to help customers gather and interpret data. For instance, our Enlight platform helps operators visualise data from a variety of sources, using a device such as a smartphone or tablet. This is a smart way of putting ‘Big Data’ into an operator’s pocket.
The ‘connectivity’ of the data runs in all directions, and can be used in many ways. At its simplest, it connects a sensor to a remote diagnostics centre. However, the data – on the health of a bearing, for instance – can be fed right back to the design stage, and used to help redesign a better product.
Increased digitalization has also begun to allow more customised manufacturing. Because it can cut machine re-setting times close to zero, there are fewer restrictions to making customised products. Recently, the owner of an aluminium mill required bearings that would allow increased output – through a higher rolling speed – as well as lower maintenance costs and the elimination of unplanned downtime. SKF was able to produce four-row cylindrical roller bearings – complete with optimised surface properties and customised coatings – to boost service life and robustness, as well as designing out product cost.
A major shift in the future – aided by digitalization – will be the way in which we serve our customers. While the usual ‘transactional’ model of providing hardware will remain important, it will start to be replaced by more performance-based contracts.
Here, SKF will be responsible for ensuring that the customer’s operations remain efficient. Supplying hardware like bearings will then support the services – from predictive maintenance to lubrication expertise – that deliver this extra efficiency.
The ability to correlate a wider variety of data can further improve performance. For instance, the condition monitoring data that SKF routinely collects can now be combined with ‘process’ data such as machine speed and control parameters, through a collaboration with Honeywell.
Having access to this wider array of data could enhance maintenance, and help customers to make more informed choices. For example, analysing both monitoring and process data might reveal that slowing a machine down by 3 per cent would extend the maintenance period by four weeks. The customer can then balance a slight reduction in output with a longer production period – and make the best possible decision.
Automatic detection of a failing bearing is a massive step forward in efficiency. However, the process of ordering the replacement – including sending the purchase order through to manufacturing, estimating the lead time, and delivering the part – still involves major human intervention.
SKF is already gearing up for a future in which the faulty part effectively puts in an order for its own replacement. Because a smart sensor can already diagnose itself, it’s not hard to imagine that it might send an automated message all the way back through the supply chain.
This type of system is yet to be developed. However, SKF is running pilots in specific areas of the supply chain. In the future, the plan is to join these pilot projects together, allowing full, end-to-end digitalization.