Your current technologies play a key role in the smart factory journey

When we in the industry talk about the smart factory, terms that may sound a little grand inevitably enter the discussion. Digital transformation. Fourth industrial revolution or industry 4.0. Autonomous manufacturing. These ideas and terms are important because they give an accurate impression of how the smart factory operates and the huge impact it will have on manufacturing processes and productivity. They help to emphasise that, as the smart factory becomes more widespread, manufacturing is going to look very, very different.

The potential problem is that when a transformation sounds big or dramatic then we might be inclined to think that the process of that change is similarly grand. There’s a tendency in the popular imagination to think about major transformations in terms of a single cataclysmic event. How many people if asked about the second industrial revolution would talk about Ford’s assembly line? Or would see apples falling on Isaac Newton’s head when asked about the ‘discovery’ of gravity? Likewise, ‘industry 4.0’ might conjure visions of robots whizzing round factory floors, transporting parts to autonomous machinery – all as if it happened overnight.

This might be a handy cognitive trick our brain uses to help make complicated transformation easier to understand. It could also help us visualise our goals and motivate us. But when we take a step back, we remember the process and the end goal are two different things. Historians would say that scientific and technological revolutions are a cumulative process of building upon previous discoveries and work. Typically, smart manufacturing is a similar story of incremental change.

As well as the visions of overnight change, some might think of the smart factory journey as a great beast of a transformation project, eating up money and time. Some organisations will aim to use their vast resources to smoothly deploy a wide range of new technologies and systems in a relatively short-time frame. But for many organisations this isn’t the smartest route to the smart factory. Whether it’s due to operational needs, resources, or business objectives, many organisations will take a more step-by-step approach to smart manufacturing. This will involve smaller, concentrated transformation activities that lead to incremental productivity gains.

The first step is to get a clear outline of the businesses’ key objectives and, bearing these in mind, look in fine detail at the end-to-end manufacturing process: the different departments and their operations, pain points, KPIs, technologies and systems. It’s not about asking what can be automated or enhanced, but where does the most value lie? How will automating this process help us achieve these business goals? How will enhancing this machine alleviate these pain points to generate greater value for the business? Yes, often when we talk about the smart factory we are thinking not only of entire plants but entire enterprises connected across its factories. But when the CFO is talking about the smart factory, they are likely more interested the ROI on a specific automation initiative.

It’s also important to note that smart manufacturing doesn’t mean ‘out with the old, in with the new’. Part of identifying where the value lies is seeing where you can maximise the performance current systems and technologies. Futuristic visions aside, the smart factory looks back too, and part of its promise is to make your current technologies smarter. This is like music to the ears of the investment-conscious CFO and the operators that over the years have become experts in using a particular machine.

What does this process look like in practice? Let’s say that OEM X, a manufacturer of display screens for tablets and smart phones, has recently taken on some high value customers. It’s great news for profitability, but KPIs suggest current capacity won’t meet new throughput demand. As part of a taskforce to identify how throughput can be increased, OEM X’s director of quality reviews asset performance data and traces reduced output to a slower older coordinate measuring machine. One option is to bring in a new CMM. Another option is to assess what can be achieved with a CMM upgrade. After consultation, the director finds that inspection and programming times can be shortened on the old CMM by upgrading the metrology software, replacing the CNC system, and adopting a new control interface. They push productivity further by deploying smart asset monitoring software, that allows operators to remotely monitor the machine and move onto more value-added work away from the CMM. What’s more this software can be used to collate CMM performance data across plants, allowing quality teams to identify spare capacity and maximise machine uptime. In this scenario, the team has helped increase throughput and contribute to these new business objectives while saving time and money. The CFO, the operators, and the new customers are happy. And the organisation has taken an important step in making their manufacturing smarter.

This is just one quite specific example in one department. These opportunities exist throughout the manufacturing process, across departments, systems, and technologies. The smart factory offers a revolutionary vision of manufacturing, but when pursuing that vision we can’t overlook the systems and technologies that enable today’s productivity. They will play a fundamental role in the step-by-step journey towards the smart factory of tomorrow.

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