Building the smarts into the factory floor
The manufacturing industry has always been a leader in adopting new technology to drive business operations.
With the automotive and aerospace industries at the forefront of innovation, manufacturing was an early adopter of automation via robotics and continues to pioneer with advanced methods using composite materials.
So, it’s ironic that the factory floor is the last place to go digital when the technology has been available for a while.
The more so because most devices, whether cars or light bulbs, are now smart, technology-enabled, and part of the connected grid known as the Internet of Things (IoT). For enterprises, this has brought efficiencies and cost-savings via customer facing activities, such as sales and services, becoming intelligent and the supporting back end systems being digitally connected and real-time data-informed.
For manufacturing companies to realise similar benefits, traditional factory floor OT (operation technology) environments need to be integrated with enterprise IT (information technology) to enable data driven manufacturing.
It can’t happen overnight, though. The journey towards what is being variously called Industrial IoT, Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet, or the Smart Factory, has to be phased because IT and business architectures have to change. The resulting business advantages, including predictive maintenance, Just in Time inventory systems, resilient suppy chains, enhanced quality, improved productivity, and reduction in health and safety incidents are well worth the disruption.
One step at a time
If you look at the transition to insight driven manufacturing as a stair case, then the first step is the ‘connected factory’. All the elements on the factory floor are securely connected to enable the necessary data flows. This positions the business to pro-actively and flexibly make informed decisions that confer a competitive edge. As the journey progresses up the stairs, increasing maturity allows the streamlining of processes and, therefore, speed to market. It makes manufacturing less about the product and more about the customer’s experience of using the product.
It seems so logical. But organisations hesitate because they don’t know where to start. The extensive variables to consider range from identifying the benefits to be gained in a specific factory setting and understanding which investment will give the best return on connecting machines to understanding what data currently exists and ensuring that there is no data loss or security leak.
Then there’s the question of applying the solutions in such a way as to support organisational strategy for maintaining or creating market differentiators. Do you enable business partners to connect into your system beyond simply accessing their own robots – so as to synchronise the entire value chain? If so, how do protect your own IP and that of your business partners? Security is a must have but it should not be a business disabler.
Easier than you think
Whether as a green field vision or as a pilot in a brown field site, don’t waste time and money tackling the Smart Factory journey on your own. Learn from others, leverage on best practices, and use the experts so that you don’t reinvent the wheel.
In fact, the easiest, most affordable way is to partner with a technology provider that already has all the solutions, has applied them for other manufacturers, and can therefore guide you straight to the outcomes you need.
No need to be a pioneer in order to be a leader.
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