Smart manufacturing: The new industrial revolution

By Glen White
A new wave of information technology known as smart manufacturing could be about to transform the industry, and many of the worlds manufacturing powerho...

A new wave of information technology known as smart manufacturing could be about to transform the industry, and many of the world’s manufacturing powerhouses are driving the movement at an extraordinary pace.

For example, in March, IBM announced it will spend $3 billion in the next four years to create an “Internet of Things” unit and develop software to help customers do the same, taking advantage of a paradigm of embedded, intra-machine connectivity, enabling machines (including everyday appliances) to communicate with one another and to adjust, without human assistance, to changing conditions.

So what is smart manufacturing? In essence, it uses embedded sensors and integrated software to collect plant operations and supply chain data, analyse that data and drive real-time improvements in production, procurement and processes. It has been hailed the “New Industrial Revolution” by some industry observers, and yet many small and medium sized companies are largely missing out on the benefits of smart technology.

Smart manufacturing benefits

For the companies that embrace it, smart manufacturing has the potential to:

  • Trigger innovation and productivity;
  • Enable and spur growth;
  • Facilitate greater worker and product safety;
  • Improve the environmental profile of operations;
  • Increase efficiency;
  • Lower product defects;
  • Increase customer satisfaction.

Waste management

By driving efficiency throughout the manufacturing process, smart technology helps eliminate waste. Better scheduling prevents idle machines and manpower; optimized runs shrink water and energy use; and fewer human errors divert from landfills wasted raw materials and spoiled finished product.

Enhanced communication

Other ways smart technology improves the supply chain include enhancing communication to facilitate planning and helping manufacturers react to events in real time.

Yet, the majority of companies are not embracing smart manufacturing. Manufacturing Global asks ‘why not?’

Capital costs

Companies must find ways to overcome those hurdles — or face the prospect of battling competitors who have — likely within the decade. Most existing manufacturing equipment has at least some viable capacity. Many small and medium sized factories are running older, one-size-fits-all enterprise software systems that are “expensive to use … and buy,” as William P. King, chief technology officer of DMDII, explained at a recent Forbes roundtable “The Digital Factory.” In the future, these companies can benefit from deploying less expensive, individualized, modular software, allowing engineers to assemble tailored, factory-fit solutions.

There will be new capital equipment costs but most manufacturing equipment can be retrofitted with external sensors and computing equipment, connecting the formerly segregated factory floor with an outrigger of notebook computers and control towers.

Human resources

Of course, smart manufacturing isn’t just about equipment. Leaders must also rethink the way they hire and organize workers. Rather than being grouped and siloed by job title, the cross-referential and collaborative nature of smart manufacturing calls for multidisciplinary, outcomes-based teams organized around optimizing tasks and processes. Finding appropriately tech-savvy employees for these teams could be a challenge, as already some 2 million manufacturing positions may go unfilled in the next decade, in part because of a skills gap for younger workers.

Phasing IT in

“For most manufacturers, embracing smart manufacturing will happen in phases. We know many manufacturers choose to implement capital improvements over time, generating performance gains that, in turn, help pay for future investments. Yet having a holistic overview and a structured plan for implementation is paramount and will prevent wasted effort and investment. Using a customized automation solution designed to work together with processing and packaging equipment can allow manufacturers to gain omniscience and control of their plants. This type of technology also gives them the power to secure product quality, prevent food safety problems and quickly track and trace any rare incidents that do occur back to the source.

“It’s a sound strategy and a path forward-thinking company leaders have within their power, if they can muster the will. Manufacturers who create comprehensive and realistic implementation strategies and begin to act now can stay decisively ahead of the competition, reaping the benefits of the smart manufacturing future and paving the way for sustained and profitable growth,” says Brian Kennell, President and CEO of Tetra Pak US and Canada. 


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