At first sight, Chengdu looks like any other industrial city in China’s southwest. Plain concrete skyscrapers and multi-lane highways surround a small old-town district, where you can sample the spicy foods typical of Sichuan Province and observe a slightly cozier lifestyle than in Beijing. But for many, this city of 15 million is a boom town. While low land prices and low salaries across the country were what originally drew investors, the region is now attracting companies thanks to its expertise in the area of digitalization, which is vast compared to the national average. Many manufacturers of high-tech products have set up operations here. Chengdu is proving that high-tech innovation in China is no longer the preserve of the capital Beijing or the major coastal cities of Shanghai and Shenzhen.
A Digital Manufacturing Lighthouse
In Chengdu, in the heart of China’s southwest, Siemens operates one of the country’s most advanced factories. Indeed, in 2018, the World Economic Forum recognized “Siemens Electronic Works Chengdu” (SEWC) as one of the “most advanced factories” in the world. An example of the “Industrie 4.0” concept, this factory demonstrates how to drive innovation with digitalization, and how to share experience and best practice with more than 10,000 industry partners every year.
Thousands of Visitors per Year
And Siemens Electronic Works Chengdu (SEWC) is a shining example of innovation. It’s the most representative contact point in China for companies that want to observe how they can digitize their production by watching the process in live operation. And there is plenty of interest. “Our facility has more than 10,000 visitors every year,” says factory head Li Yong Li. “Delegations from major Chinese industrial operations come to SEWC to find out what benefits digitalization can bring to manufacturers, and what interests them most is how to implement the digital enterprise.” At SEWC, production is recorded, monitored, analyzed and optimized – entirely by digital means. It’s an accomplishment that has not gone unnoticed. In 2018, the World Economic Forum named SEWC a global “Manufacturing Lighthouse,” declaring it one of nine of the “most advanced factories” in the world.
“In the past 5 years, SEWC has implemented production automation, material flow automation, and information flow automation. It has grown to be a role model for the future of manufacturing in terms of speed, flexibility, quality, efficiency and security. It has done so in order to maximize benefit through the entire product lifecycle management.” says Li. The plant’s outstanding characteristic is the technological level of its production. Today, a product of the Simatic PLC, Simatic HMI, and industrial PC families is produced at the plant every two seconds. Since 2013, SEWC has increased its productivity by 20 percent annually.
All of SEWC’s products are designed to monitor, check, manage and automate machines and plants, thus improving product quality and saving time and money. They manage everything from on-board systems for cruise ships and industrial manufacturing processes in the automobile industry to ski lift systems. Siemens is a global market leader in this area. The plant has a process quality rating of 99.999 percent, with a range of testing stations picking up the very small number of errors. Sixty percent of SEWC’s production is for the China market, while the remaining 40 percent goes all over the world.
Same Processes – Same Principles
Manufacturing facilities with such exceptionally high process quality ratings are generally not born overnight. And indeed, SEWC’s success would hardly have been possible without the showcase factory for digital production that Siemens operates in Germany – its electronics plant in Amberg (“EWA”), where it has been manufacturing Simatic Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) since 1989 and recently won the “Industrie 4.0” award.
“We mapped the processes from the Amberg plant to Chengdu on a 1:1 basis,” explains Dr. Gunter Beitinger, who is responsible for Siemens’ Digital Factory Business Units in Amberg, Fürth and Chengdu. From its machinery and software tools to its Simatic IT manufacturing execution system, which records and controls every aspect of the production process from start to finish at a virtual level, the equipment in Chengdu is designed on the same principles and processes as the equipment at the Amberg factory.
Optimization through Digital Twin Technology
The recipe for success for EWA in Germany, which draws many visitors of its own – including Chancellor Angela Merkel – works just the same in Chengdu. “For example, if a robot is soldering an assembly onto a PCB, our systems first check whether the part works properly before it is taken any further,” explains Beitinger. “In our factories we check each process step and each component for quality and use intelligent algorithms to do so.” The result is process stability combined with high quality. In many factories in China, however, quality checking happens only at the end of the manufacturing process, which results in a lot of waste.
In addition to the Chengdu facility’s high levels of automation and quality control, all production processes are digitally recorded. Software is fed with about 10 million pieces of data every day, most of it being process information. This is used to manage production processes and ensure quality. It also supports the work of more than one hundred R&D engineers at SEWC who create and improve products for Asian markets. They put more than 50 new products into mass production each year, several of which have received IF Design Awards.
And even here, factory improvement knows no end, as the production data generated by new products flows directly back into manufacturing processes via Digital Factory PLM Software. Central to this process is Digital Twin technology – virtual representations of products, production processes, and whole plants – which enables SEWC to create holistic models of products and their lifecycles. This in turn allows thorough optimization with respect to key factors such as speed and flexibility, product quality and efficiency, and data security.
China’s Road to the Digital Factory
“You will hardly find a factory in China that operates at this level,” says Beitinger. Even though automation has made considerable progress in China’s industry, a high level such as at SEWC can only be achieved by precisely analyzing core processes and optimizing them step by step. This, Beitinger believes, is the precondition for a digital factory. But even so, he adds that, “No one here is completely in the dark about Industrie 4.0 any longer.” This is shown by the specific nature of the questions asked by the delegations of visitors who are shown through the factory every day.
Many Chinese enterprises are making vigorous efforts to achieve Industrie 4.0, which refers to the fourth Industrial Revolution, following the invention of the steam engine, the assembly line, and automated mass production. China can see a huge opportunity in developing its production facilities into digital factories. The flow of visitors through SEWC isn’t about to slow down anytime soon.