Too often, discussions about smart manufacturing are too abstract to be useful. Claims that it connects billions of machines and people confuse rather than clarify. To gain the benefits, you need to get specific. To do that, it’s helpful to review how the characteristics of smart manufacturing correspond to your business goals and tactics. This will help you decide how to leverage and deploy the technologies in your company. Future articles will review the characteristics from the perspective of traditional business goals, describing how smart manufacturing will help you address the need for speed, meet more complex customer expectations, improve decision making, and build and sustain operational improvement and business growth. Smart manufacturing is…
When people talk about businesses being “flat,” they’re referring to eliminating the layers of management between the top and the bottom of the organizational pyramid. In the factory, they’re referring to the manufacturing technology stack that connects and helps control the production process from the plant floor to business planning and logistics. Smart manufacturing flattens both of these hierarchies by providing more access to more business data to more people, which otherwise would have been obtained through the slow process of information moving up and decisions coming down the hierarchy. Executives planning a smart business strategy should look for ways to “democratize” data. They should use smart technologies to, for example, eliminate reports and meetings, where decisions are traditionally made. Instead, they should use smart technologies that make the appropriate data available via dashboards to those who need it, when they need it. Early adopters, for example, provide plant floor operators with specific machine and production-quality data while delivering executives factory-level data with exception alerts.
Though it’s not a new concept to get the right data to the right place at the right time — so operators and business leaders can make better-informed decisions — smart manufacturing finally makes this possible. With the internet, big data, analytics and the cloud, decision makers throughout the company can get information with a few taps on their smartphone or tablet. Even better, the data no longer must be directed to a person — it can be sent to a machine that is learning as things are happening, notifying a person only when necessary. Along with eliminating hierarchical reporting structures, executives developing smart manufacturing strategies must redesign processes and workflows so smart machines complete work that they do best while redeploying operators to higher-value work only humans can do. Using smart automated-guided vehicles to transport material and automated quality inspection are good first steps.
Sustainability in business means the ongoing economic, social and environmental viability of the company — the so-called triple bottom line. Smart manufacturing supports achieving all three together by providing the real-time data you need to capture opportunities and keep costs down and productivity up while better understanding waste and material losses and monitoring your workforce challenges. Using smart manufacturing, companies can gather the data needed to address issues of social responsibility, such as customer demands for fair trade and work practices. With smart manufacturing, companies have set up traceability in the supply chain to provide the information needed to prove suppliers are operating in a sustainable, fair way.
The faster data gathering, processing and communication made possible by smart manufacturing enables faster decision making. Opportunities or problems that are identified early and dealt with quickly help decision makers respond to changes in the marketplace, whether global or local and to shift production to where it is most profitable. Perhaps the best example of this is the ability to monitor and feed sales and social media data into executive decision making dashboards, so quick increases or decreases in demand can be met with changes to production or marketing campaigns.
Smart manufacturing is about helping people do their jobs better. For example, providing factory operators with machine interfaces that deliver production and quality data allows them to act in real time to address slowdowns or quality variances. Delivering information to procurement executives about a hitch in a critical supply chain enables them to quickly ramp up alternative sourcing.
When conversations about smart manufacturing focus on the “gee whiz” technology that connects equipment and people in ways never before possible, they miss the point. Companies implement smart manufacturing to more easily and effectively make a profit. Research by the MPI Group found that 69% of manufacturers credit their use of IoT technologies for increasing their profitability. Top processes representing the best opportunities to leverage the IoT cited by the survey respondents include document management, warehousing, shipping/logistic/transportation and packaging.
When you provide everyone in your company with access to the data they need to solve problems — and empower them to use it — you change the mindset of everyone in your company. They no longer simply do what they’re told — rather, they engage in continuously improving work practices to eliminate waste and drive value.
Smart manufacturing is current in two ways. First, implementing a smart manufacturing strategy is possible now. Businesses don’t have to wait for new technology to be perfected to launch a smart manufacturing initiative. Indeed, they delay at their peril. Disruption comes and goes before you realize it’s even coming. Second, smart manufacturing is current because it is event-driven, responsive and adaptive. That is, the data is available, and decisions are made in real time. By understanding how smart manufacturing’s attributes relate a specific tactic and contribute to achieving a business goal, you can make smart decisions about how to deploy the technologies and move forward in your smart manufacturing journey.