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Schneider’s first UK smart factory pays for itself in under a year

12 October, 2021

Schneider Electric has invested £300,000 in its plant in Flint, North Wales, upgrading it to become its first smart factory in the UK. The project has transformed the site from being one of the company’s least efficient UK premises, to becoming its most productive in Europe. The investment paid for itself in less than a year.

Among the benchmarks achieved so far are that:
• maintenance costs have been cut by 15% (£91,000) by installing a lean digitisation system with Andon alerts;
• despite a 20% drop in demand during 2020 due to the Covid pandemic, efficiency was 5% higher last year than in 2019, while productivity rose by 4% – representing £240,000 in savings. A further 7% boost in efficiency expected during 2021;
• electricity consumption has been cut by 15%, including a £14,000 saving achieved by installing intelligent lighting systems;
• water consumption has been halved, down from 4,228m³ in 2019 – the highest of any of Schneider’s UK sites – to 2,138m³ in 2020, with a further fall to just 960m³ expected this year;

The 8,000m2 Flint site was built by Mita in 1976 to manufacture cable management systems, including trunking. Mita was acquired by the Lexel Group in 1999 and joined Schneider Electric in 2009. Currently, 125 people work at the site.

Before the upgrade, the factory’s systems were out-dated, consisting of many production machines where energy control was limited. The third-party machines were not interconnected and their maintenance costs were high. But replacing the machines would have been expensive and labour-intensive, and would have resulted in extended downtimes and possible safety issues.

In 2018, Schneider therefore decided to overhaul the existing systems to improve their efficiency, control, sustainability and safety. The £300,000 project began with a four-day workshop to identify key pain points and objectives. A system was then designed that would monitor and control all of the factory’s critical process parameters, from its use of power, to the machines and the building itself.

The staff had to be trained to use new equipment and technologies, which included variable-speed drives, smart panels and LED lighting. They were made aware of areas of inefficiency and were given “ownership” of issues. They now have access to dashboards, as well as alerts that notify them of any changes in the plant.

“From a production and maintenance perspective, the factory used to be digitally blind,” recalls Mark Yeeles, Schneider’s vice-president of industrial automation for the UK and Ireland. “Over the course of a few years, we have become the first smart factory in the UK with complete operational visibility and clarity. We have control over real-time processes and can achieve a higher level of sustainability and safety. Given the project achieved a ROI within a year, it’s been an undeniable success for all involved.”

Following a conversion to smart technologies, Schneider Electric’s Flint plant is now its most productive in Europe
Image: Google StreetView

The upgrade has made extensive use of software and hardware from Schneider and Aveva, the UK-based industrial software developer in which Schneider took a controlling stake in 2017. The technologies involved include augmented reality, energy monitoring, non-intrusive sensors, cloud-based data analysis, and process visualisation.

The plant is has now been “fully digitalised” using Schneider’s EcoStruxure software suite, allowing managers to control and optimise all aspects of the factory. Smart meters have been fitted to all of the machines, which are now connected to the IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) via Schneider’s open, “vendor-agnostic” tools. EcoStruxure’s Facility Expert tool allows the site’s managers to keep a digital logbook of equipment and to identify and respond to any problems. The Machine Advisor tool provides machine analytics that operators use to optimise machine operations and improve reliability. Aveva’s visualisation platform supports continuous operational improvement and real-time decision-making.

“Flint is a fantastic success story in all aspects – safety, productivity and sustainably – at a reasonable cost,” says Enrique Herrera, Aveva’s industry principal for manufacturing. “The fact that the site saw a return on the investment in smart technology within just a year and dramatic decreases in water and electricity use, is testament to the potential for manufacturers to transform the way they operate quickly, cost-effectively, and sustainably.”

Schneider Electric is now upgrading its Coventry premises to make it the company’s first net-zero site in the UK.

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