X-Factory – Part One

A Paradigm for Smart Connected Factories


X-Factory is a demonstration factory (making real products) created by PTC to help manufacturers visualize a path to the Smart Factory. Here we describe what makes a factory smart and get a look at the engineering, material handling, and chassis manufacturing stages.


( This article is excerpted from the complimentary report:
X-Factory: A Paradigm for Smart Connected Factories
, available for download here. )

What Makes a Factory Smart?

Source: Image by ChainLink Research

The way we manufacture goods, and the very nature of the factories producing them, are going through profound changes. The world’s major economies have all recognized the need to rapidly evolve their manufacturing capabilities, as reflected in Germany’s Industrie 4.0, Made in China 2025 (MIC 2025), and the more loosely defined ‘smart factory’ concept in North America. Key components of this transformation include:

  • Physical-Digital Systems — Smart connected machines and systems form the core of manufacturing, transportation, and distribution systems.
  • Autonomous Collaborating Production and Logistics Equipment — Production machines, logistics equipment, and their systems operate autonomously, communicating and coordinating with each other at different levels in a hierarchy; e.g. a welding station coordinates several welding arms, precisely synchronized with the conveyor system, driven by chassis-specific instructions; each stage of production synchronized with the next; guided by production scheduling, transportation optimization, inventory levels, and ultimately by end demand.
  • Personalization and Mass-Customization — The ability to do short runs, or ‘runs of one’ with the same efficiencies and costs as large runs. Mechanisms for end customers to easily visualize, personalize, and configure the options they want.
  • Agile Design and Manufacturing Processes — The ability to frequently and incrementally adjust and improve the design of a product and manufacturing processes.
  • Visibility and Coordination Across Value Chains — Each smart factory is a ‘team player,’ integrating across the smart digital supply chains it participates in. Precise visibility is shared across nodes of production, transport, and distribution, which can then be co-optimized, not isolated.
  • Automation of Routine Tasks/Human-Machine Fusion — Machines can’t do it all alone. The next generation factory optimizes and unifies the roles of the people, the machinery, and the intelligence uniting them. People are freed from repetitive, dangerous, and injury-prone work to work on processes and tasks where they add the most value. Human Machine Interfaces become increasingly seamless, intuitive, and integrated with factory workers (e.g. via wearables such as smart glasses and smart gloves).
  • Participative Work Design and Learning — Front line workers are empowered with knowledge, authority, and trust to constantly improve the manufacturing processes, and are provided with the tools to continuously learn and progress professionally.
  • On-going Resource Efficiency Improvement — Incentives, tools, and systems are in place to continually reduce materials and energy use.
  • Safety and Security – rchitecture, design, policies, training, and testing ensure data is protected, hackers can’t subvert machines, and employees can work safely side-by-side with autonomous machines.
Source: Image by ChainLink Research

Translating this grand vision into reality has many challenges. Manufacturers are saddled with existing brownfield factories with various levels of automation, autonomy, and smart factory capabilities. The challenges in visualizing the possibilities and figuring out where to start in retrofitting existing facilities can slow down the pace of adoption. PTC decided to help by doing, rather than talking. With a number of partners, they have put together a demonstration factory, building real products, to provide a paradigm to help manufacturers imagine what is possible. They call it the X-Factory.

The Product: Sigma Tile

Source: Image by ChainLink Research
Figure 1 – Sigma Tile with Cover Off

The X-Factory is a demonstration factory, but making a real product, the PTC Sigma Tile, which is a low-cost IoT device that can be used for demonstration or IoT application development and testing. The hexagonal shaped device contains a Raspberry Pi 3 processor, with a Sense HAT (with sensors for temperature, humidity, pressure, acceleration, and orientation/gyroscope), an LED digital display, and USB and Ethernet connections. The device is built from off-the-shelf components such as the Raspberry Pi PCBs, sensors, display, and connectors, in a custom designed 3D-printed chassis.

The Factory: X-Factory Stages and Work Cells

The X-Factory was set up at LiveWorx 2018 in Boston and members of the public were encouraged to experience it first hand by performing some of the steps in the assembly and testing operations of the factory. The X-Factory is now being featured at PTC’s Customer Experience Center (CxC). There are six stages (stations) in the X-Factory: 1) Engineering and Design, 2) Chassis and Cover Manufacturing, 3) Assembly, 4) Testing and Packaging, 5) Warehouse, and 6) Production Management. Across these are 13 applications, all built on ThingWorx, running at the edge in an HPE Server. In addition, the factory included an autonomous robot doing automated material handling between the various work cells.

Engineering and Design

The engineering and design station of the X-Factory includes Creo (PTC’s parametric 3D solid-modeling CAD system) with simulation capabilities to help engineers test out different solutions to issues that arise. The use of 3D printing further allows mechanical designs to be prototyped and tried out rapidly. These proved their worth during the deployment of the X-Factory. At one point the specifications of the printed circuit board (PCB) in the Sigma Tile changed slightly which made the connection between the Sense HAT board and the Raspberry Pi board slightly looser, resulting in intermittent failures in quality assurance (QA) tests. Engineers used Creo to add a small ‘bumper’ onto the cover, which applied pressure on the connector. This succeeded in making the connection reliable, but caused the cover to lift up slightly. Engineers changed the solid bumper to a flexible spring, used Creo’s topology optimization to design just the right amount of pressure — enough to keep the connection reliable without lifting up the cover. With the 3D printers, they were able to rapidly iterate through these prototypes to arrive at a final design.

Automated Material Handling

At LiveWorx 2018, the movement of materials between each of the work stations or cells was handled by a HIROTEC Mobile Robot consisting on an OTTO 1500 self-driving vehicle with a Yaskawa Motoman dual-arm manipulator. Each station has two sets of gravity-fed rolling rack transfer stations: one set for input materials, the other for output materials. The autonomous self-guided robot carried small blue bins of parts or finished goods from the output racks of one station to the input racks of another. These racks are outfitted with sensors that drive an automated Kanban-like approach to production. The removal of a bin from an input rack or addition of a bin to an output rack can trigger the robot to come resupply inputs to or remove outputs from each station.

Source: Image by ChainLink Research
Figure 2 – HIRIOTEC Robot Transferring Materials Between Work Cells in the X-Factory at LiveWorx 2018

Chassis and Cover Manufacturing

The chassis and cover manufacturing station is a Formlabs Form Cell, which has five Form 2 3D printers,1 automated post-processing, and a robotic gantry system. As soon as each piece has been created by a 3D printer, the gantry system moves it to the post-processing unit for support removal and washing, and then to the output rolling rack transfer station where gravity feeds the finished units to the back of the station. They are positioned to be picked up by the HIROTEC’s Mobile Robot which delivers them to the assembly work cell.

Source: Image by ChainLink Research
Figure 3 – 3D Printing Station at LiveWorx 2018

As the cost of 3D printing continues to drop, capabilities continue to rise, and the ability to do volume production increases, we see a continual increase in the dividing point (number of units) at which 3D printing makes sense.

3D printing is not suitable for all manufacturing (see side bar). However, it was a good fit for X-factory, especially at this stage where they are producing low volumes. 3D printing supports the rapid development and iterative refinement of the product and processes. Just in getting ready for demonstrating at LiveWorx, they went through several iterations of the design, serving as a good example of how agile development dovetails with agile manufacturing.

Source: Image by ChainLink Research
Figure 4 – Temporary Supports on Sigma Tile Cover

The 3D printing station has a dashboard showing the status of each printer (idle/starting/printing/finished, which part is being printed, print time remaining, etc.); status of the post-processing machine, gantry, and transfer module; and controls to configure, calibrate, and control the subsystems within the Form Cell. While the machine can be entirely controlled through this panel, larger shops will typically control the station via an MES system. PTC’s strategy is to work with existing MES systems, rather than forcing customers to ‘rip and replace.’

As with most 3D printers, overhanging features need to be temporarily supported from underneath so that they don’t fall down when each subsequent layer is printed. Figure 4 shows the Sigma Tile cover with supports. Form Labs provides software that automatically add the needed supports.

In Part Two of this series, we will look at the assembly, testing and packaging, warehouse, production management, and solution integration for X-Factory.


1 These are stereolithography (SLA) printers that use a laser to cure a liquid photopolymer resin into solid isotropic parts, one layer at a time. SLA has the advantage of requiring less post processing than some other 3D printing techniques.– Return to article text above

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.

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