So what makes our intelligent factories at Indaiatuba in Brazil and Guayas in Ecuador so smart?
Factories that can be controlled remotely have been around for some time, but what makes our towers different is that their remote control and automation have been combined with advanced analytics and machine learning.
The result? Engineers and technicians can now use data generated by the towers’ algorithm to make strategic decisions about production and improving processes, rather than having to spend their time constantly monitoring each process parameter.
When this move toward digitalised factories was initially launched as part of our supply chain transformation programme, it was driven primarily by a need to optimise performance, increase flexibility and reduce costs. However, when Covid hit at the beginning of 2020, the project was accelerated, as the smart towers’ remote monitoring facility offered the perfect way to look after the health of our workforce, while maintaining the quality of our products.
How do the smart towers work?
Laundry detergent powders such as Omo, Deja, Radiante, Surf and Comfort are produced by spraying a slurry of ingredients into a tower which is blasted with hot air to dry it into a powder. Until very recently, factory operators would be responsible for manually controlling the moisture content of the powder to ensure that it was neither under- nor over-dried – either of which could adversely affect the quality of the final product.
Now, this function has been digitalised. “We developed algorithms that can simulate different scenarios and predict outcomes based on artificial intelligence and machine learning,” explains Daniel Correira, Digital Manufacturing Manager at LATAM.
“Now technicians in the control room can focus on more strategic decisions regarding production and use data intelligence to improve the process, instead of having to be constantly monitoring each process parameter. The insights are all in one place, accessible through a Power BI dashboard and the Unilever Digital Factory app, which enables faster decision-making, based on real-time data to optimise the performance of the tower.”
Gonzalo Sanchez, Engineering Co-ordinator in the Guayas factory, has experienced these benefits first hand. “I have learnt new skills with these digital tools and I have been able to make better decisions faster that will help the business grow,” he says.
Since the digitalisation, the towers have delivered on both efficiency and sustainability. They have reduced their natural gas use by more than 10% and their carbon footprint by up to 10%. “We’re seeing a reduction of waste, therefore we are also delivering on sustainability,” says Daniel.
How Covid acted as a catalyst for completion
Although the project had been progressing in sprints for some time, the impact of the Covid crisis catalysed its speedy completion.
The structure of the factory control towers made social distancing almost impossible. However, if product quality was to be maintained, round-the-clock monitoring was also necessary.
The intelligent towers offered a solution to both problems by providing remote working options that would not compromise quality. Thanks to the extraordinary support of global and regional technology teams, new safety and cyber security protocols were put in place in record time, and the operating parameters were back in the hands of the experts within weeks.
Agility and teamwork
There is no doubt that the digitalisation of the towers is a remarkable example of collaborative work on a global scale. Developed by a multi-skilled team from the UK, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, over 90% of the project was completed remotely.
Sarah Loftus, Digital Engineering Director at Unilever, agrees. “The key to implementing this project effectively was to draw on local and global expertise,” she says, adding that identifying a clear business purpose and keeping the end-users firmly at the centre of all the development process was equally vital.
However, perhaps the most exciting element of the digitalisation of the factories is in its potential for future applications. “We have achieved a solution that can be deployed across our laundry powder towers, as well as scaled across similar technology across the business,” says Sarah.
“We have run virtual trials and even commissioned a new formulation remotely with UK colleagues,” she adds. “And this is just the beginning.”