One of the first questions I often get from colleagues, peers, and audiences is “I have heard of Smart Phones, Smart Cities, Smart Cars, Smart Buildings – but what exactly do you mean by Smart Manufacturing?”
How you explain, Smart Manufacturing depends on the context in which the question is asked and who is asking it. However, at a fundamental level, Smart Manufacturing is essentially getting the right information, at the right time, in the proper form, with the right technologies, to the right people to enable them to make the right decisions – for a unit process, a linked production flow path or the entire supply chain.
"A manufacturer who is looking to make their production smart, is looking for the ability to sense information from their manufacturing environment"
It is not that manufacturing, in general, has NOT been smart. We have been using the building blocks of Smart Manufacturing for decades in manufacturing operations - sensors, advanced control, analytics, and predictive modeling. Numerous manufacturing organizations have been developing and deploying innovative solutions that range from real-time sensing to model-based predictive control. However, these solutions have typically been isolated in their respective islands of excellence. The flow of information across these solutions is not seamless and is often constrained by poor connectivity, communications, and computing. In a way, remove these constraints, and you have Smart Manufacturing.
A manufacturer who is looking to make their production smart, is looking for the ability to sense information from their manufacturing environment (what is happening), analyze that information (why is it happening), predict the behavior (when will it happen again), and finally control the action (how to prevent or repeat it). Doing all of this in isolation is not smart. Doing it in an integrated fashion is. And what is needed to enable this is a platform that provides fundamental data-centric capabilities – to be able to connect, collect, contextualize, and consume information in a frictionless environment, so that manufacturing problems can be solved rapidly. Integrating information technologies (IT) and operational technologies (OT), therefore becomes critical.
Fortunately, in the last decade or so, the advent of low cost sensing, ubiquitous connectivity and cloud computing has made access, flow and consumption of information easier through IIoT platforms – bringing us one step closer to enable decision making by humans or machines, powered by rapid synthesis and contextualization of information, and fast executing predictive tools and models.
While many of such platforms have certainly made it possible for the masses (of manufacturers) to take the first step toward Smart Manufacturing, most of them tend to address specific slices of the puzzle – a common one being “connecting an asset to the cloud for performing predictive maintenance.” However, simplified integration and contextualization of information from different parts of the production operations or supply chain, and cost-effective scalability are two areas that still deserve a lot of attention. Particularly for discrete manufacturing at the flow path or enterprise level.
So where do we stand? Is Smart Manufacturing a reality yet for most manufacturers? Maybe for a select few large organizations. “Democratizing” smart manufacturing (making it accessible and affordable for ALL manufacturers) will require overcoming several challenges. Technology is just one – making it cost-effective, scalable, and interoperable. Building the infrastructure is something that not every manufacturer can afford to be able to leverage smart technologies. Connectivity for legacy equipment is another challenge across many manufacturing sectors. Talent required to understand intelligent technologies and to be able to make decisions regarding which ones to use and apply to their specific manufacturing scenarios is another critical challenge for many. Perhaps the most crucial hurdle in undertaking the Smart Manufacturing journey is culture – from the shop floor to the decision-makers. Culture, as you know, eats strategy for breakfast.
These challenges are not intended to discourage the reader, mainly if you are a small manufacturer. It will indeed take commitment, focus, and perseverance to overcome some of the barriers mentioned above, but what is most important is to get started. Because you certainly don’t want to be left behind in this endeavor. There is a lot we can learn from the early adopters that have been successful in taking the first step and staying on the journey. Create a compelling vision, find the right partners, start small, look for quick wins, and then feed the frenzy!
What I am saying here is certainly nothing new. What is important to note however is that now, more than ever, many of us in this field are saying the same things, our thought processes are aligning, our approaches are beginning to converge, and the sense of community is growing. This is exciting!
Here’s to making ALL manufacturing Smart!