There is a robot on the doorstep of your factory

Sep 20, 2016
You arrive at work tomorrow and there is a robot on the doorstep of your factory. It’s a present, you can keep it. Would you have any idea how to use it?
Everyone is talking about the ‘Internet of Things (IoT)’, self-driving cars, drones and robots. Although the technology is available, useful implementations in your company (or at home) may seem further away. In this blogpost, we want to provide you an example of what is happening right here right now, in the port of Ghent in 2016. Not by rocket science or by movies that will go viral on the internet, but by two ‘hands-on’ digitalization projects. For these projects, we worked together with Eastman Chemical Company and other project partners, preparing them for the factory of the future. If there would be a robot on their doorstep tomorrow, they are ready to use it.

A day in the life of…

Here’s what a regular day looks like in a global company like Eastman Chemical Company. At a sales office in Brazil, a sales order for one of the chemical products produced in the plant in Ghent is entered into the system. This item needs to be delivered in a steel drum. Based on stock information and planned orders, the Brazil team can automatically check availability, even when operations have not yet started in Ghent.

Planning tool

When the production planner in Ghent enters his office, he immediately sees the order coming in. The planner then uses a planning tool to align the planning of the steel drums with the planning of the bulk product that is required.

Automated real-time stock updates

As production always follows planning to the letter, the chemical installations start to produce the required bulk product on the scheduled date. As the product is flowing through the installation, intelligent meters collect the data and send it via SAP MII to SAP where stock reports are automatically updated. As a result, the production planner in Ghent as well as the sales office in Brazil can monitor stock progress of the bulk product. The production manager can also track silo levels and production rates.

Machine integration

Once the chemical installation has finished the production of the bulk product, it can be directed immediately to the filling stations. At the filling line, the operators use an MII Shop Floor Cockpit to start the machines after which technology takes over. Empty drums start rolling into the filling station where they are filled with the correct product and weighed. If the weight is within tolerance of the planned weight, the journey continues and the drum passes a sensor which sends the collected data to SAP via SAP MII. The printers at the filling line are activated and labels are printed and attached automatically to the drum. Each label contains customer-specific as well as product- and transport data which is crucial in the chemical sector. Scanners check whether the printed information on the drum is correct and conform the information in the ERP system. When the checks are okay, the drum moves to a palletizer and then into the warehouse. If not, the drum gets blocked and human intervention is required.

Weighbridge integration

Later on, a truck arrives to pick up the drums for shipment to the Brazilian customer. When the truck leaves the plant, a weighing bridge interface checks whether the load of the truck corresponds to what needs to be delivered, whether the driver has the required certificates to transport the product, and so on. The ERP system is also updated, thus allowing onward tracking of the delivery to the Brazilian customer.

So what?

What seems to be a straightforward process was, in fact, quite hard before the implementation of the digitization projects these past 2 years. By implementing standard SAP tools like SAP ERP and SAP MII, masses of data captured by sensors and meters all over the production process are now put to full use. This has enabled the company to manage and control the flow of information across the supply chain without any manual input. This gradual evolution at Eastman Chemical Company delivered the best of both worlds: more insights at the top floor, along with increased flexibility at the shop-floor. The job content of many employees has also evolved from data input to data analysis, improving results even further. The importance and the impact of these holistic projects, on which engineering, supply chain management and IT worked together, cannot be underestimated.

Evolution, not revolution

If you read about projects like these, they are not revolutions. We haven’t replaced the coffee machine by a drone (which would have been a great idea, I just realize). But all these projects enable the revolution that is coming, eventually, some day. Our advice to any company: don’t wait until the first self-driving car drives around one year without accidents, or until your first Domino’s Pizza is delivered by drone. Start now by initiating small, concrete projects that will prepare you for the moment when a robot will be on the doorstep of your factory.
So tell me, would you know what to do with a robot on your doorstep?


  • Simon Nuttin. You can connect with Simon on LinkedIn.
  • Alexander Naessens. You can connect with Alexander on LinkedIn.