How can an SME handle daily challenges and the respective opportunities in a dynamic and worldwide manufacturing network? How do you handle the assembly of increasingly complex products in smaller batches in the Industry 4.0 era? Digitisation and automation are key principles, but are unachievable without a clear objective and strategy. Have you thought of asking for support from operators with digital tools?

Industry 4.0 is facing a new industrial (r)evolution, a melting pot of traditional industry sectors with new digital technologies. The digital hype sometimes seems to create the – incorrect – impression that the manufacturing industry is irrelevant. A solid industrial foundation is essential for continuous economic growth and welfare. Investment in the manufacturing industry is the key message.

Digitisation and automation appear to be unavoidable. Manufacturers can prepare by gradually investing in and finding the right solutions for the digitisation and automation of their specific business. The broadening variety of digital technologies means that finding the right moment to invest is of major importance for manufacturers. Agoria and Sirris developed the Digital Journey Tracker especially for this purpose. If you have specific digitation and automation challenges concerning production floor activities, IBN "Digitising Manufacturing" can provide the right answer.

This article focuses on the digital tool options available to support an operator when manufacturing physical products at a factory. For example, a common production floor activity, the assembly of various parts into a single product. The operator requires information on what, where and how to assemble the parts. This requires (technical) preparation and planning.

If the operator does not have digital communications devices on the production floor, he or she will require work instructions and a list of orders on paper. An operator working in a smart assembly cell receives the same information but in digital format. Digital assistive technology ensures the operator has the right information at the right time to complete his or her orders. The status of the assembly can also be monitored. This is an additional advantage because all deviations from the planning are immediately visible.

Working with the digital toolkit

"digital assistant" supports the operator, enabling him or her to perform a more varied set of tasks, which he or she can learn much more quickly. These customised instructions also improve the quality of the manufactured products.

A digital assistant has two primary objectives:

  • To suggest the optimal (machine) settings or parameters to ensure the process step can be performed as efficiently as possible.
  • Access to customised procedures and instructions, taking the operator into account (for example, experience level, language, etc.).

A digital assistant roughly consists of front-end and back-end sections. The back-end section aggregates all required data, for example using an IoT platform such as 'ThingWorx'. The front-end section ensures that the operator sees the right information at the right time and that the information is no longer displayed when the operator no longer needs it. 

When designing a digital assistant, it is important to consider the dashboards (information on the display or on smart glasses or a smart watch, etc.) to be displayed to the operator and how this information is to be displayed.

The range of digital (mobile) devices that can be used to support the operator when performing their task(s) is continuously increasing. The selection of the device mainly depends on the type of tasks performed by the operator (interior or exterior, at a mobile or fixed location, etc.) and the speed at which the information has to change, as well as the compatibility of the 'digital tools' with the specific tasks performed by the operator.

Smart glasses are practical for example when the tasks are performed at eye level, such as taking parts from a small container in a warehouse. A tablet is useful for assembly work on larger and more complex machines. Projection systems are appropriate for assembling small parts on a table (some smart glasses are less practical when performing this work, in that the operator often has to look upwards because the information is displayed best when the operator looks straight ahead). Projection systems are less appropriate for large structures where the operator has to assemble parts underneath.

Front-end section examples:

Instructions on a touchscreen

Read a touchscreen case study. 

The simplest touchscreen option is the display of work instructions in PDF file format on the screen (paper on glass), indicating the issues to be taken into account. This is often combined with other systems to indicate progress (production status) by comparing the planning (from ERP) and the actual production (for example, based on a counter at the end of the production line).  

Smart glasses

Smart glasses such as Snap, Vuzix, Iristick, ODG R-7, etc. provide access to the right information. Various Belgian companies offer software to display work instructions on smart glasses (Proceedix, Azumuta, SupportSquare, etc.). Some of these smart glasses can also be used as safety glasses in production environments where goggles are required. Smart glasses are usually based on Augmented Reality (the real world is "augmented" by virtual elements, an experience comparable to playing Pokémon Go).   

Left: Advanced smart glasses (ODG R-7); Right: Proceedix software on smart glasses

A Human-Interface Mate

Arkite is a Belgian company offering solutions to project instructions into an assembly cell interactively. The system informs the operator when he or she is performing a task incorrectly.

Links: Assisted assembly at Make Lab - Right: Arkite HIM


The Microsoft Mixed Reality HoloLens is a good example of a headset. Mixed Reality merges digital information with real-world physical objects, for example holograms, which can be anchored in a room or a specific location. The information is linked to the room, not to the user. This means people can walk around the projected information, get a closer look or study it from all perspectives. Mixed Reality is an interesting technology that can be useful for various industries. Despite the high quality of the images, the reliability of the devices still needs some work. Many research institutions are using the HoloLens for demonstrations.

Data from ERP systems, CAD and PLM data, work instructions, etc. are aggregated in the back-end section. This will be discussed further in a future article. An (I)IoT platform (such as PTC's ThingWorx) is often used to aggregate and provide data to the front-end section. The same platform also generates a digital shadow or digital twin of the product immediately after the production steps have been completed. 

Are you interested in working with digital tools on the production floor? Let the Factories of the Future inspire you! Register at Factories of the Future offer inspiration (page only available in Dutch).