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Technology company Continental pushes toward Industry 4.0 across its production floor

The idea of leveraging operational visibility across the manufacturing floor for process optimization has pushed companies to invest in Industry 4.0 — a consequence of the fourth industrial revolution — ushering automation and facilitating seamless exchange of data. 

To date, manufacturing processes largely work in silos, with individual sections having no connection with the other, bringing in gaping inefficiencies that could be solved by interaction and visualization of processes at large. 

Continental, one of the world’s largest automotive parts manufacturers, is looking to transition to Industry 4.0, by partnering with software giant SAP to standardize its air spring manufacturing processes and gain real-time visibility into operations. FreightWaves spoke with Hendrik Neumann, project manager at Continental, and Antonio Porras Martinez, machine connection expert at Continental, to discuss the company’s association with SAP software.

Neumann pointed out that Continental has been using SAP’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) for two decades, but is now branching out to use SAP’s ME (manufacturing execution) — the cornerstone of the company’s Industry 4.0 initiative. 

“There are two reasons for us to go with SAP ME. One, we wanted a software company to take control of the development of the Industry 4.0 system, and two, it is easy to integrate the interfaces between SAP ERP and SAP ME,” said Neumann. “Our goal is to standardize processes and have them rolled out across all our production plants.”

The implementation process started small, with just a single machine in a production area of a plant in Germany. Upon its success, Continental eventually integrated the solutions into four other global facilities, improving operational visibility while increasing reliability and product traceability using the Internet of Things (IoT) technology. 

For a long time, Continental had been juggling the use of different software across its several business units, making it hard for integration between production centres. Neumann explained that introducing SAP ME helped as it came with prebuilt processes, enabling faster product rollouts. 

“Standardization has led to faster rollout in plants and SAP ME integration with ERP helps us with visualization and traceability. If you can visualize the production process in real time, you can react on problems in the production process in real time,” said Neumann. “For example, the old software we had would collect data from everyone and give us the data the next day. But with SAP ME, we have live data coming in, helping us react faster.”

Implementing smart factory techniques requires unlimited networking of all production machines and systems, contended Martinez. “We are about to start projects in the area of machine learning and big data, and we expect significant benefits in the field of predictive quality and process optimization. By integrating the production-related machines, we create a high level of process flow safety as well,” he said. 

Continental now leverages IoT to identify various air spring manufacturing objects using RFID devices. Using SAP ME, the company has switched its production process from batch production to serialized production, making it easier to gather data arising from every individual product. 

“In the old manufacturing execution systems world, we needed a lot of help from developers. And if we had customer demand, we had to program product labels, which took a considerable amount of time,” said Neumann. “But now, it is easy to react to the demand because the labeling software is easy and can be done in a couple of hours, which took a couple of weeks prior to this.”

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Vishnu Rajamanickam, Staff Writer

Vishnu predominantly covers stories coming out of Europe within the logistics and transportation space - be it current affairs, trend analysis, trade forecast, or technology. He also connects with key stakeholders within the freight industry, profiles startups, and brings in perspective from thought leaders in the freight space. In his spare time, he writes net-noir poetry, blogs about travel & living, and loves to debate about international politics.

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