What does smart manufacturing mean?

Since the Industrial Revolution, followed by the mass production innovations brought by Henry Ford, advancements in technology have played a huge role in manufacturing. In more recent times there has been much talk about the need to implement ‘smart manufacturing’ but perhaps less agreement about what the term constitutes.

So, what is ‘smart manufacturing’? After all, hasn’t industrial manufacturing always been kind of smart? Can it be dismissed as just a marketing slogan?

Here are a couple of existing definitions:

“Smart manufacturing is a broad category of manufacturing that employs computer-integrated manufacturing, high levels of adaptability and rapid design changes, digital information technology, and more flexible technical workforce training.” From Wikipedia.

“Smart manufacturing is the notion of orchestrating physical and digital processes within factories and across other supply chain functions to optimize current and future supply and demand requirements. This is accomplished by transforming and improving ways in which people, process and technology operate to deliver the critical information needed to impact decision quality, efficiency, cost and agility.” From Gartner.

Some interesting definitions there. Ultimately, both of these view the integration of digital technologies and data analysis across manufacturing processes as key. A little vague, but you get the idea.

But the issue here is that as the world becomes more digitally connected – not just within industry, but everywhere – manufacturing will naturally become more and more digitalised with the solutions brought to market by companies such as Hexagon. So, ‘smart’, as defined above, will eventually become the norm.

Perhaps now is the time for a more nuanced and updated definition of smart manufacturing?

The first definition cited from Wikipedia is interesting because it mentions the importance of being able to implement rapid design changes. This is key to a more focused interpretation of what smart manufacturing is (or needs to become).

For many, the design process remains separate from manufacturing and has always operated separately. But to be more agile and responsive to change and to bring products to fruition sooner, this discipline must be fully integrated into the manufacturing processes organisations implement. This way of thinking closely relates to a methodology known as design for manufacturing (DfM) which makes an appearance down the page in some lengthier definitions of smart manufacturing.

The ‘shift left’

For Hexagon, design and simulation are central pillars of any smart manufacturing workflow and this is one of the ways we’re empowering makers across multiple industries. We are focused on making the design the single source of truth from where a virtuous circle of continuous improvement can be created, by validating engineering work in software with measurements from manufacturing processes and manufactured product.

Our VP Global eMobility Practice Lead, Ignazio Dentici, elaborated on this in a recent interview with Automotive World:

“I don’t think any discussion of smart manufacturing in a whole vehicle production and assembly context can omit the design phase anymore. To be smart in 2030, manufacturers will need to apply the best insights they have from virtual design, virtual manufacturing, virtual testing and virtual prototyping data and processes.”

Every aspect of the manufacturing process is planned from the initial design. Entire factories are designed to make just one product. Designers and engineers are responsible for a huge number of variables that have major consequences in downstream manufacturing processes.

Not only this, but 80% of a product’s environmental performance is locked in at the design phase, so for our industry to get truly smart for the benefit of the planet, we need to start looking earlier for optimisations.

To those outside manufacturing it may seem a minor adjustment, but in reality it constitutes a new way of thinking. Much more than a meaningless slogan, it points to very real challenges in manufacturing. To back this up, we have some fascinating insights on the horizon from recent research conducted with leading analysts Forrester. I can preview one very thought-provoking finding (full report to come very soon!) which revealed that 72% of survey respondents agreed the lack of collaboration between design/engineering and manufacturing teams is a problem. (Base: 524 global manufacturing technology decision-makers
Source: A commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Hexagon, May 2023)

This highlights two things. Firstly, that a significant majority feel that design being separated from the rest of the manufacturing process needs to be changed. Secondly, the ability to collaborate effectively is the key problem the current status quo creates.

Connect to collaborate

So, it seems the first hurdle to overcome is located in the mindset; to truly consider design as the first stage of manufacturing. And then a more complex challenge; to fully connect design, simulation, and product development with the production, assembly and quality solutions that make up modern manufacturing operations in a way that allows people to collaborate effectively. The good news is that this is happening now; Hexagon is empowering makers all over the world to bring more innovative, higher quality products to market faster.

A new definition of ‘smart manufacturing’? Maybe not, but for Hexagon, it has gained greater meaning and context in this transformative age of digitalisation.




  • Emanuel Viklund

    Emanuel Viklund joined Hexagon in 2020 from Stampen Media Group. He previously spent a decade at Ericsson, holding multiple leadership positions in marketing, strategy, sales and business development. Viklund holds an MSc degree in computer science from Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm and an MSc degree in corporate finance from Stockholm School of Economics, where he also participated in an exchange with UCLA Andersson in Los Angeles, California.

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