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A Factory's Fountain Of Youth

Fri, 12/03/2010 - 5:27am
Patrick Michel, Dassault Systems

Turning ‘old’ to ‘new’ — and minimizing the risks — with digital retrofitting.

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Building a new factory is an expensive and time consuming endeavor, so why would you start from “square one” if you didn’t have to?  As manufacturers look to continually increase efficiency and profit margins, it’s a question that many have asked and as a result have found success in retrofitting “old” factories to suit their needs. 

There are plenty of risks in taking a building that was expressly designed for one purpose and transforming it to support another; risks that have caused many companies to shy away from a retrofitting strategy.  However, retrofitting a factory digitally, before starting any work in the real-world, can ensure that equipment can be moved and replaced and guarantee that the ‘old’ factory can handle the new production processes.  By building a factory in a virtual world, simulating the transition to new tooling and equipment, and then simulating new production processes that will occur once retooling is complete, manufacturers can prove a project’s viability, identify any potential issues and alleviate them before actual work begins.

There are numerous scenarios when retrofitting a factory — and therefore digitally retrofitting first — can provide a manufacturer with a competitive advantage.  It’s a strategy that manufacturers can apply to improve efficiency at their existing facilities, or when they move into facilities that were previously owned by another company.

Acquiring and Altering

As companies, and sometimes entire industries, rise and fall to meet consumer demand, factories are continuously coming offline or being retired.  When this happens, it creates opportunities for other manufacturers to invest capital in an existing building and begin production quickly.  Taking control of a pre-existing facility eliminates the need to build “from the ground up” and can save time that would be dedicated to permits, politics and planning.  It can reduce costs and accelerate time to production from not only a facilities perspective, but from a human resources perspective as well.  As one company leaves a community, it also leaves an eager workforce that can be trained or retrained to support a new factory’s needs.

When transitioning a factory from one company to another, there are inherently fewer risks involved if the facility remains within the same industry.  For example, the risks are likely lower when one automotive supplier moves into a factory where another once operated.  As the differences increase between what a factory once produced and what it will produce in the future, so do the risks involved.  However, digital retrofitting can mitigate those risks while providing all the same benefits.  If a traditional automotive manufacturer vacates a facility and an electric vehicle manufacturer moves in, the tooling and equipment may change, but many of the processes involved in how the product moves through the line may require a similar layout that can be easily visualized.  On the other hand, if that same factory will soon be used for an entirely different industry — perhaps to manufacture jewelry or toys — changes within the four walls will be significant.  Either way, the changes can first be made digitally to prove viability, identify potential issues in the retooling process and create ways to solve any issues that may arise.

Enhancing the Existing

In today’s economic environment where flexibility is key, there are many scenarios where it makes sense for a company to retrofit its existing factories.  A company may want to retire a product and retool a factory to create a new one, or it may simply want to improve production by making operations more efficient.

Over the past few years, many companies have reduced staff and idled facilities.  As the global economic environment improves they’ll retain a much stronger competitive advantage by remaining lean.  As consumer demand, and therefore production numbers increase, companies should look for ways to operate with existing resources if at all possible.  A time may come in the future where expanding into a new facility — or retrofitting someone else’s facility makes sense — but meeting demand with current resources is a much safer alternative as the economy slowly improves.

For example, instead of dedicating a factory to a single product, an auto manufacturer could alter an existing factory and enable it to produce multiple models.  A factory that can handle a coupe body traveling down the line, followed by a sedan body, is much more cost-efficient than supporting two separate facilities and can more accurately meet production demand.

When time is money and deadlines must be met to start production, retrofitting an old factory is one of the quickest ways to meet your goals.  Digitally retrofitting a factory makes the process even quicker and removes much of the risk at a time when unexpected downtime could cost millions.

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