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. In addition, the government is establishing favorable conditions for start-ups, thus helping to attract more investors. 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.
Chinese Digital Factory Sets Quality Standards
In Chengdu, in the heart of China’s southwest, Siemens operates one of the country’s most advanced factories. An example of the “Industrie 4.0” concept, the facility’s machines and products communicate with each other in real time and all processes are IT-managed and optimized. The result: exceptional levels of productivity and quality.
Thousands of Visitors per Year
Siemens Electronic Works Chengdu (SEWC) is a shining example: it’s the only contact point in China for companies that want to observe how they can digitalize their production by watching the process in live operation. And there is plenty of interest: “Our facility has more than 5,000 visitors every year,” says factory head Li Yong Li. “Delegations from the major Chinese industrial operations come to SEWC to learn about our production of SIMATIC controllers and other electronic components.” What interests them most is how the facility has managed to implement the concept of Digital Enterprise. At SEWC, production is recorded, monitored, analyzed and optimized – entirely by digital means.
The factory in China’s southwest grew from nothing in just two years. “The short construction time is nothing unusual for China, however,” says Li. It began operations in late 2013. The outstanding aspect is the technological level of the production itself: The factory produces almost three million end products each year in the SIMATIC PLC, SIMATIC HMI and industrial PC families. All of the products are designed to monitor, check, manage and automate machines and plants, thus saving time and money and improving product quality. 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 99.99885 percent, with a range of testing stations picking up the very small number of errors. Sixty percent of production is for the China market, while the remaining 40 percent goes all over the world.
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 digitalized production that Siemens operates in Germany – its electronics plant in Amberg (“EWA”), where it has been manufacturing SIMATIC Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) since 1989.
“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 the fleet of machinery to software tools and the SIMATIC IT manufacturing execution system, which records and controls the entire production process from start to finish at a virtual level, and thus forms the centerpiece for the digitalization, the equipment in Chengdu is a clone of the equipment at the Amberg factory.
Continuous Improvements with help from Germany
During Chengdu’s start-up phase, teams from Amberg spent months getting the plant rolling and training its Chinese employees. “Now, of the 390 employees there, the only German employee permanently in Chengdu is the head of the commercial section,” says Beitinger, proudly. “Everyone else working with him is from China.” 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. 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 13 million pieces of data every day, most of it being process information. This is used to manage the entire production process and ensure quality. The information also supports the work of around 50 product developers working in Chengdu whose job is to make constant improvements to the products manufactured in Chengdu especially for the Asian market. The production data they generate flows directly into the manufacturing processes via Digital Factory PLM software, e.g. Siemens’ NX or Teamcenter.
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, such a high level of added value can be achieved only 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 march toward Industrie 4.0. It 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 workbenches into digital factories. The flow of visitors through SEWC isn’t about to slow down anytime soon.