When we talk about the greying workforce in manufacturing, we’re often talking about humans. But we’d do just as well to think about how the machines in our factories are aging. 

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution well underway, there are now ways to bring digital innovation to your legacy facilities without huge expenditures in new machinery or technology. 

If you’re a manufacturer with workhorse assets and tight technology budget, brownfield transformation is for you.

What is a Brownfield Transformation?

Drawn from the world of urban development, brownfield land is “any previously developed land that is not currently in use.” 

In manufacturing, the term is used in two ways.

First, it’s used to distinguish between projects that will improve existing machine and infrastructure (brownfield), and projects that will involve extensive new purchasing (greenfield). In this usage, brownfield transformation is any transformation that works with existing operations and capacities.

In a less specific usage, brownfield factories are facilities without significant digital infrastructure. Here, brownfield is synonymous with analog. 

A brownfield transformation is any project that increases connectivity in existing machines (even those built in 2019), or projects that bring online facilities built prior to the digital era.

Why is it Important to Bring Legacy Factories Online?

Brownfield sites represent the vast majority of manufacturing facilities across the globe. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the average age of industrial assets in the United States was about 23 years in 2015. 

Thus, most of the manufacturing equipment currently in use does not come with native digital functionality (fun fact: the oldest piece of manufacturing equipment in the BEA report has been in continuous use since 1925).

What’s more, the older the plant, the less likely it is that management will invest in new equipment. This is a well documented phenomenon, and one that began well before the advent of the digital era. 

Several factors contribute to the digital disparity between old and new facilities. For one, between 60% and 70% of manufacturers in the OECD are SMEs. For these manufacturers, there often aren’t the resources, human and capital, to actively pursue expensive digital solutions. Second, digital solutions have been, historically, prohibitively expensive. Given the opportunity to update a facility or build a new one, many manufacturers elected for the greenfield approach. 

In the last five years, this situation has changed dramatically. With advances in cloud and edge infrastructure, advanced sensors, and lightweight IIoT solutions, manufacturers can now pursue brownfield digitization without increasing budget, headcount, or headache.

Why Brownfield Projects are the Fastest Path to Value

To understand why brownfield projects are the best option for many manufacturers, it’s important to understand the goals and value of digitization. 

Often, digital transformation is posited as an end in itself. If we connect our assets, it’s reasoned, ROI will follow naturally. 

This isn’t necessarily true. 

Rather, the most successful digital projects are those that use specific digital technologies to achieve specific business goals. For manufacturers with brownfield facilities, there’s often a good deal that can be achieved quickly. 

For example, with the installation of simple sensors, it’s possible to start measuring asset health and performance with a basic condition or resource monitoring program. Simply by understanding how your machines consume energy, you can tap into a source of cost savings. By understanding how your operation’s unique conditions influence a machine’s lifecycle, you can reduce downtime and optimize maintenance schedules. 

With devices like gateways, it’s easy to convert the data your legacy equipment generates into common protocols like OPC UA, among others. These gateways give you an opportunity to aggregate and analyze data from many machines and processes in a common format without huge upfront investments. 

Further, cloud-based Platform as a Service offerings like manufacturing applications allow you to configure applications for your unique processes without investing in large-scale, custom MES solutions. 

In most cases, there simply isn’t the need for extensive, expensive infrastructure to reap the benefits of digital manufacturing. 

For manufacturers without an existing digital infrastructure, there are simple, quick-to-deploy ways to reap the benefits of digitization.

Case Study: Process Visibility with Analog Machine Monitoring

Lightweight brownfield transformations are best demonstrated through a real-world example

Recently, Tulip helped a food and beverage manufacturer eliminate bottlenecks and increase throughput by bringing a brownfield facility online. 

This manufacturer produced their entire product line in-house–from raw materials to packaged good. Most of their equipment, however, dated from the 1970s. There was nothing wrong with their machines. They ran efficiently and predictably. However, they were analog, and thus the manufacturer lacked the visibility necessary to make data-driven decisions. 

When a key customer dramatically increased their order volume, this manufacturer faced a decision: buy new machines, or find a way to increase the throughput using their existing assets. 

Working with Tulip, this manufacturer opted to pursue an analog machine monitoring program. Using IoT enabled sensors to monitor RPM and other key machine parameters, this manufacturer improved their understanding of production processes enough to identify bottlenecks and better balance their lines. The information is communicated to databases via an IoT gateway, where it’s converted into a visual production dashboard to help everyone on the shopfloor understand production in real time.  

By connecting this machine data to human performance data, they were able to view their operations from a holistic perspective, identifying areas for improvement, and understanding exactly how WiP flowed through their lines. 

In the end, this manufacturer increased the number of units produced by 15%. They’ve met their ambitious goals for expanded production while reducing the cost of goods sold. By bringing a brownfield facility online, they were able to improve uptime and visibility in a way that made a real impact to the business.

Curious how Tulip can help bring your brownfield factory online? Get in touch for a free demo today.