The digital transformation happening in factories and manufacturing companies across the world has led to what many are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The first industrial revolution came about when powered machines took the place of hand production. This gave way to automated assembly lines, which eventually progressed to the more frequent use of information technology, electronics, and robotics.
That third stage has dominated the workforce for the last few decades, but even that technology has advanced. The era we find ourselves in today –“Industry 4.0”– is all about capturing and harnessing big data, and to do that well, organizations need to understand smart manufacturing.
This post will give you everything you need to know about the next phase of industrial manufacturing technologies.
What is smart manufacturing?
Smart manufacturing is a catch-all term for manufacturing processes that utilize machines to analyze data and make informed, real-time decisions or calculations beyond human capabilities.
While smart manufacturing is a relatively new concept, the idea of using technological advancements to achieve more than humans has been around for ages. All technological advancements accomplish this in some way. The invention of the wheel, for instance, allowed people to travel further distances in shorter times than foot travel. Smart manufacturing works the same way.
Smart manufacturing uses sophisticated new technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence to empower machines to do more automated work with greater accuracy, efficiency, and ease.
It works in relation to the Internet of Things (IoT) – a network of all the physical objects in the manufacturing plant. Smart manufacturing collects data from all these individual pieces and provides valuable insight for each one.
Manufacturing isn’t the only part of the industry becoming “smarter,” though. Increased automation in various fields has led to the smart factory, smart logistics, and smart supply chains. As the manufacturing industry has relied more on technology, leaders have placed a heavier emphasis on cybersecurity, big data, augmented reality, and IoT as well. Each of these contributes to the overall scope of Industry 4.0, but smart manufacturing offers specific benefits for organizations looking to increase productivity and accuracy while keeping costs low.
What are the benefits of smart manufacturing?
Just as calculators and computers can do sophisticated math faster and more accurately than even the world’s top mathematicians, smart manufacturing can improve the work happening on the factory floor. It leads to higher output, a greater degree of accuracy, and increased efficiency of any production process.
But how, specifically, does it do all this?
We’ve narrowed down the top 5 benefits of smart manufacturing.
- Data Collection Automation
Standard data collection procedures involve a supervisor observing and documenting the necessary information. Even in the best cases, this process is prone to mistakes as the supervisor or team of supervisors can only catch so much.
Smart manufacturing tools automatically collect production information and provide data analytics. Manufacturing leaders can then use this information in their decision making processes to ensure that the organization takes the necessary steps to improve.
- Improved Productivity
The increased visibility offered by smart manufacturing also helps leaders pinpoint bottle-necks, workflow issues, machine performance, and other potential inefficiencies. Once leadership becomes aware of these issues, they can come up with solutions to reduce excess time and increase productivity.
- Reduced Costs
By providing automated insight into the supply chain such as demand, inventory levels, and status of deliveries, smart manufacturing can help manufacturing companies reduce production costs. Leaders will also become aware of wasteful spending within the supply chain more easily, allowing them to reallocate funds to more necessary parts of the manufacturing process.
- Improved Predictive Maintenance
Many of the sensors on smart manufacturing machinery are programmed to send data on the condition of the tool. They can also inform the leadership team when a piece of equipment will need repair, making it much easier to plan for scheduled maintenance and reducing the frequency of breakdowns and damages throughout a piece of equipment's lifecycle.
- Optimization of the Workforce
The optimization of the workforce happens when tools do their jobs. Smart manufacturing can bring down the number of workers necessary for the production process. Employees, whether in leadership or on the shop floor, can focus their attention on less tedious and more specialized tasks as smart tools take over.
Examples of Smart Manufacturing Technology
The idea of smart manufacturing can almost feel like it was pulled from a futuristic, science fiction movie, but this kind of technology exists in a variety of industries. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
One healthcare service provider in the midwest –BJC Healthcare– used smart manufacturing to help track their inventory and better manage their supply chain. Their old process had them manually monitor and track all of their inventory, but in 2015, they started placing radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in all their medical supplies. This allowed them to better keep track of their inventory and in turn greatly reduce the amount each hospital in stock.
Smart manufacturing goes beyond healthcare, however. Hirotec –a global manufacturer of auto parts – wanted to reduce their downtime, and used smart manufacturing to make that happen. The company uses cloud-based technology and digital connectivity to provide analytics without sacrificing physical space on the shop floor. Additionally, they used machine learning to help with predictive maintenance on their manufacturing systems, resulting in a 100% reduction of manual inspection times.
Another example comes from an additive manufacturing plant in Chicago called Fast Radius. This contract manufacturer utilizes advanced manufacturing technology to streamline its processes and provide customization to its clients. Much of this customization comes in the form of 3D printing. Fast Radius’ technology stores and collects data on the 3D printing design files in a virtual warehouse which the smart manufacturing tools can also scan for, offering valuable insight into the engineering and economic factors at play with the designs. Recently, this highly efficient process helped the company produce a reusable face-shield in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally, no smart manufacturing example list is complete without mentioning digital twins. A digital twin is a perfect digital replication of a physical object. This kind of technology allows teams to analyze the object and make alterations for improvement without causing any harm. This enables organizations to improve designs or predict maintenance needs. Chevron predicts that they will save millions of dollars a year by 2024 because of the predictive maintenance capabilities offered by digital twins.
How to Get Started with Smart Manufacturing
As Industry 4.0 continues to grow, manufacturing companies wanting to survive will want to step into smart manufacturing as soon as possible, and getting started isn’t as complicated as you might think. Sure, the technological ecosystem can feel daunting, but little changes can go a long way. Here are 5 simple ways any manufacturer can get started with smart manufacturing.
- Adjust your business strategy
Make sure that your goals are aligned with smart manufacturing. Think about how you can improve shop floor efficiency, product customization, and your workforce’s tech skills.
- Get Trained
There are plenty of consultant companies and individuals who train organizations on smart manufacturing. If your company wants to jump straight into the deep-end, it will help to get experienced professionals to help you navigate all the changes.
- Get your team onboard
Making the digital shift can be difficult on any organization’s team, especially for those workers who have done things one way for a long time. Leaders should inform their team about all the ways that smart manufacturing will make their lives easier in order to get them onboard with the idea of changing things up. Make sure you set up clear expectations, too, and equip the workers with the tools they need to meet those expectations.
- Start Small
Pick one process you can easily improve with digital tools. Look for anything that requires optimization and think about ways digitization can help. Combine that solution with a smart system that gives workers real-time data that influences their decision-making. Once you get this down, you can move on to bigger projects.
- Connect with other technologies
Smart manufacturing works best when each piece of technology contributes to the larger ecosystem. Once you have digitally improved a few processes, start connecting them with one another.
How to Scale Your Smart Manufacturing
Smart manufacturing is all about digital connectivity to the larger IoT structure at your factory, so scaling your efforts will require investments in multiple categories. Organizations will want to think about cybersecurity, cloud computing, data storage, and other elements of their digital infrastructure.
Some organizations will emphasize these in greater or lesser degrees. The point of smart manufacturing is not to incorporate every piece of new technology that comes on the market. The point is to use technology to improve an organization’s manufacturing processes. Therefore, each organization will need to decide the level of investment they’re willing to put into smart manufacturing.
Regardless of the degree of investment, though, each company’s efforts to scale their smart manufacturing efforts will require the same things:
- A well-communicated, organization-wide vision for smart manufacturing.
Employees will have an easier time following if there is a clear direction that the entire leadership supports and champions.
- A clear plan and expectations.
Scaling does not work when done haphazardly. Organizational leaders need clear plans with timelines and expectations for the various stages in order to reach success.
- A rollout plan that can build on itself.
An entire technological overhaul is unrealistic, but you also don’t want to start something that will require change when a new process gets added. Consider each small step and how it contributes to the overall vision. The rollout plan should include adding new technology that works with the next piece and the next until the scaling is complete. That's why thinking about the industrial internet of things is so valuable.
- Workforce Support
Employees will require support during and after the scaling process. Proper training and coaching can help workers stay motivated as their confidence increases in smart manufacturing.
Optimizing Smart Manufacturing
Remember, smart manufacturing is not about adding more tech. The tech is only a tool for improved processes. Organizations looking for improved operational efficiency and accuracy will benefit from all that smart manufacturing has to offer as they step into industry 4.0.
Want to understand where smart manufacturing fits into the overall value chain strategy?