X-Factory: Part Two

A Paradigm for Smart Connected Factories


PTC’s X-Factory shows a path to Industrie 4.0. Here we examine the assembly, testing and packaging, warehouse, production management, and solution integration for X-Factory.


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

In Part One of this series, we examined the characteristics of a smart factory, and looked at X-Factory’s engineering, material handling, and chassis manufacturing stages. Here we look at the remaining stages.


This is a ‘hands on’ station, where visitors can assemble each unit. Visitors are doing this assembly task for the very first time, with no training. This sets a very high bar for ease of use. It provides a good proving ground for PTC’s Vuforia augmented reality technology, which is used to deliver visual work instructions that guide the visitor/worker through each step of the process. These work instructions are also available via a ThingWorx web application to allow comparison of various means of operator execution. Kits of parts are delivered to the station automatically by the HIROTEC robot and assembled by the visitor-worker following digital step-by-step procedures. Each step is automatically logged, including readings from connected tools, to measure productivity in real time. This helps power agile optimization of the manufacturing process.

Figure 1 – Example Visual Assembly Instructions

Testing and Packaging

As with assembly, this is also a hands-on work cell for visitors. It also offers several different ways of presenting the work instructions (AR, written instructions, video). The visitor-worker performs a built-in self-diagnostic test of the unit. If the product fails, the connected test application logs the result for quality tracking purposes and prompts the visitor-worker to place it into a different location, to be sent for further testing and rework. Units that pass the test are put into the product package, along with a USB cable and memory stick.

The worker puts the packed box on a scale which serves to double-check that the right pieces are in the box by checking that it is between a minimum and maximum weight. This weight measurement is connected to ThingWorx thru a local Comtrol gateway. The ThingWorx application at the station simultaneously notifies the operator of a PASS/FAIL state on the screen and logs the result in the MES system to keep a record of quality-related process results. This is an example of systems that were previously disconnected and are now being connected directly into the process. The ThingWorx application and platform orchestrates the operator’s actions, the connected hardware, and the manufacturing software tools, thereby practically eliminating manual errors and providing a precise digital paper trail. Boxes that pass inspection are put on the output rack/transfer station of the work cell to be taken to the warehouse.


The warehouse is used to store the incoming raw materials, as well as the finished goods after assembly, test, and packaging. In the X-Factory, the ‘warehouse’ is simply another station within the same space as the other stations. Materials are conveyed from the warehouse to the stations and back by the HIROTEC mobile robot. For larger operations, the warehouse would normally be a separate facility, potentially with its own warehouse management system. The ordering and delivery of raw materials into the warehouse, as well as the delivery of finished goods to customers are outside of the scope of the X-factory. However, the X-factory provides the real-time visibility and control to allow those processes to be synchronized and optimized with the actual production in the factory.

Production Management

JDA Factory Planning & Sequencing is used to model and schedule production in the X-Factory. It has a model of the factory that incorporates resource constraints and SKU attributes. The sequencing application would typically receive orders from a Master Planning system. An ideal schedule is calculated to start production. Throughout the day, ThingWorx takes live machine sensor data and feeds that real-time data to the sequencing system. This enables the system to see which stations are running ahead or behind schedule. It then dynamically replans the sequence and schedule as needed. The sequence is typically sent to an MES system which interfaces with each work cell, providing the instructions on which items to work on next.

The Partners: Integrating Multiple Solutions

With few exceptions, virtually all factories are multi-vendor environments — a combination of equipment, software, intelligence, and expertise from multiple suppliers, all working together to integrate into a single, synchronized operation. There are more than a dozen partners involved with PTC in deploying the X-Factory including:

  • Allied Reliability — Reliability engineering, predictive maintenance.
  • Averna — Quality testing software.
  • Axiomtek — Industrial embedded processors for edge processing within the local devices.
  • Banner Engineeering — Infrared sensors that sense when a bin is put on or taken off each transfer rack.
  • Callisto — Integration of the stations and operator work instructions designs.
  • Comtrol — IO-Link industrial protocol gateway, turning sensor inputs into Kepware-understandable tags.
  • Doran — Smart connected scales.
  • Elisa — Factory management and optimization, with a 3D UI showing a digital twin of the X-Factory.
  • Formlabs — 3D printers for creating the chassis and cover.
  • Hewlett Packard Enterprise — Highly scalable edge servers running ThingWorx IIoT platform locally.
  • HIROTEC — autonomous self-guided robot to transfer materials between the various X-Factory stations.
  • Ingersoll Rand — Connected tools, such as a smart connected screwdriver that ensures proper torque.
  • JDA — Factory planning and sequencing.
  • Vuzix — Smart glasses for augemented reality, such as showing assembly and test instructions.

In addition, PTC recently announced a major parternship with Rockwell Automation, an industry-leading partner in industrial automation and controls. Rockwell is investing a billion dollars in PTC.

Agile Manufacturing: The Road to Industrie 4.0

Agile design tools and methods1 are used in X-Factory. An example is the use of simulation and 3D printing to iteratively prototype and try different solutions to secure the HAT board to Raspberry Pi board connection (as described above). Rapid iterative prototyping also helped in transitioning from hand assembly to robotic assembly — tabs were added to aid the robot in aligning the pieces — and iterations for other adjustments needed.

Agile manufacturing, a core component of Industrie 4.0, is the ability to respond quickly to changes in customer demand and cost effectively do mass customization with ultra-short runs, even to single-item production. Enablers of agile manufacturing include modular product design (a platform approach allowing many varia­tions), engineering-manufacturing integration (ability to quickly and iteratively fix design problems), modular work cells (providing flexibility in use of labor and machine resources), SMED (single minute exchange of die — the ability to very rapidly reconfigure manufacturing machines), and IT and factory systems that support mass customization (such as interleaving of orders). X-factory was designed with agile manufacturing in mind, in particular with independent work cells, the use of 3D printing, and integration of engineering and manufacturing.

Another part of Industrie 4.0 is sustainability and energy efficiency. Sensors throughout X-Factory provide comprehensive, fine-grained, real-time visibility which can help to measure and optimize energy use. Dash­boards for each cell and factory-wide views allow for continual improvements in OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness). Variance is minimized in X-Factory in various ways, such as via smart connected tools (like the smart screw driver, ensuring exactly the right torque is applied), the use of robots (ensuring precise repetition of tasks), and integrated QA inspection. Analytics can quickly recognize indicators that something has changed and needs adjusting, whether it is because of a new batch of parts, or a changed equipment setting, changes in humidity, or other factors.

Getting from Here to There

Most factories are not greenfield. They often have a diverse mix of production equipment of different ages, from different manufacturers. They may have no MES, a homegrown MES, or a packaged solution. And most companies have a diverse mix of enterprise applications such as ERP systems, sourcing and procurement, supply chain planning, WMS, and so forth. Thus, the journey to a smart factory is by necessity a step-by-step process, rather than ‘rip and replace.’ That is why the integrative capabilities of the underlying platform are so important. X-Factory uses Kepware to provide connectivity to virtually any legacy equipment and protocols.

X-Factory is built on the ThingWorx Industrial Innovation platform, providing connectivity to internal and external systems. ThingWorx was designed for rapid development and deployment of IoT applications. Additionally, X-Factory uses Vuforia, which was designed for rapid development and deployment of Augmented Reality applications, interwoven with IoT data, delivered in a way that lets human operators intuitively consume the information and interact with systems. Thereby, the factory can rapidly and incrementally add new sensors and capabilities, as well as more intuitive hands-free human-machine interfaces, continually getting smarter, more connected, and more agile. That is why it we consider X-Factory to be a paradigm for the smart connected factory.


1 Agile hardware development tools and methods are continually advancing, enabling engineers to rapidly and incrementally refine designs. One example is CAD-Integrated Continuous Simulation, which provides simulation in
near-real-time, right within the design tool. — Return to article text above

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

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