Is smart manufacturing moving fast enough?

Rockwell Automation Australia

By John Clemons*
Tuesday, 23 April, 2024


Is smart manufacturing moving fast enough?

Manufacturers that embrace smart manufacturing can use those technologies to create a competitive edge, but this still isn’t happening for many companies.

Smart manufacturing technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), digital twins, digital threads, manufacturing execution systems (MES), advanced analytics, cobots and more are all very powerful technologies. The synergies among these technologies make them so much greater than the sum of their parts. All of these technologies related to Industry 4.0 are helping transform manufacturing industries back into an economic powerhouse.

This transformation, however, isn’t happening for many companies. The reason is because some companies simply aren’t using smart manufacturing and all those powerful technologies, or they’re not using them very much. Many companies aren’t really sold on smart manufacturing and the technologies that go with it. They might have one or two pilot projects going to prove smart technology and its benefits before it’s adopted beyond the pilot. How long is long enough before the results of the pilot project say it’s time to move forward?

Manufacturers that embrace smart manufacturing can use those technologies to create a competitive edge. Companies that aren’t moving fast enough won’t make a real impact on the business and will find themselves falling behind their competition. There are many reasons why manufacturing industries need to move much, much faster to implement smart manufacturing.

Smart manufacturing’s bottom-line benefits

As manufacturers embrace smart manufacturing, they’re transforming operations from traditional, old-school manufacturing operations to high-tech digital manufacturing operations and realising tremendous bottom-line benefits. The results are seen in increased productivity, reduced costs, reduced inventory, improved quality, reduced scrap and rework, improved yield, improved asset utilisation and reduced energy costs.

These tangible benefits have a direct impact on a manufacturing operation’s bottom line, but they impact much more than that. Smart technology also generates intangible benefits, which are just as valuable but more difficult to quantify. It helps manufacturing operations do things better, faster and cheaper — all of which directly impact the bottom line.

With these modern technologies, manufacturing operations also can become more agile, meaning they can change direction quickly and easily — moving from different products, different materials, different assets or even different approaches to manufacturing. While agility is very difficult to quantify, it is very valuable as a normal part of everyday operations.

Smart manufacturing not only provides increased agility, flexibility and responsiveness, it can also increase quality, speed, productivity, consistency and predictability. All these capabilities have a positive impact on a manufacturer’s customers, suppliers, workforce and community.

Customer technology expectations are increasing

Today’s customers use smart technology and are more tech-savvy than ever. They have come to expect new products, new product solutions and customised product variations. They want on-demand access to new and better, high-quality products. They want more customisable bells and whistles at lower costs along with quick response times and superior service.

With smart manufacturing, manufacturers can use real-time data to meet customer specifications and help solve problems. Customers require data on product details, specifications and usage. Smart manufacturing makes it easy to collect, organise and summarise the data customers require and provide it along with the products and solutions.

Manufacturers can also make quality products with tighter specifications. This helps them deliver better products and services to customers while helping resolve their problems with fit-for-purpose solutions at the same time.

Supplier manufacturing partnerships and collaboration are key

Strong collaboration with suppliers is key to establishing a successful partnership. Suppliers want to understand how they can help support manufacturing business needs. They want to be more than just commodity suppliers responding to requests and sending what’s listed. Suppliers want insight into how they can help solve manufacturing problems and provide the best products and services to the consumer.

With smart manufacturing technologies, manufacturers and suppliers can collaborate and work together as true partners and deliver the quality products and solutions customers have come to expect. Using intelligent real-time data, manufacturers and suppliers can gain insight into customer requirements. They can then change the products, materials or process to meet customer specifications, as well as deliver new services, new products and new variations.

Smart manufacturing can lay the foundation for manufacturers and suppliers to collaborate and build a stronger partnership that delivers better, faster and lower-cost products and solutions.

How smart manufacturing empowers the workforce

Manufacturing jobs aren’t what they once were. The next generation is showing little interest in manufacturing jobs, and hiring and retaining people to work in the manufacturing industries is extremely difficult.

Smart manufacturing helps companies build a safe work environment that appeals to people and gets them interested in manufacturing careers. Transforming with smart technologies also has a significant impact on the overall culture and quality of life in an industrial work environment: companies can improve their employment value proposition and make it easier to recruit and retain an industrial workforce. They can also use smart manufacturing to create a high-tech digital environment, a place where people want to work and can use modern tools and technologies to do their jobs safely, effectively and efficiently.

Nobody wants to work in an environment where they are undervalued or underappreciated, or be seen as cogs in the manufacturing machine. Modern workers want to be empowered to make decisions and proactively improve operations in a safe environment where they can significantly impact the job.

In other words, let the machines do what they do best while the people do what they do best.

Smart tools and technologies also help collect and transform real-time data into information and provide it to the right people at the right time. Based on this data, workers can then make informed decisions to keep productivity up and costs down, which all leads to greater long-term economic sustainability.

Smart manufacturing tools and technologies enable workers in a manufacturing operation to become highly skilled knowledge workers, where they are very effective and productive in their jobs and highly valued within the company.

Smart manufacturing and sustainability: more than technologies

Smart manufacturing technology helps manufacturers achieve sustainability. Many technologies can help achieve results for environmental sustainability (reduced waste, emissions, energy and carbon footprint) and economic sustainability (profitability) efforts. But smart manufacturing is about more than just technology: it’s about people and processes, as well. It’s about the social responsibility to employees and the community. Smart technology helps reduce the impact in all these areas and helps companies keep their competitive edge.

From an environmental sustainability perspective, smart tools and technologies provide the data necessary to know what’s going on and to figure out why it’s happening. This provides the ability to analyse data in context over the short and long term to see trends, to perform real root cause analysis and judge the efficacy of programs designed to reduce waste and reduce emissions.

Real-time data and analytics also help companies achieve economic sustainability by increasing productivity and reducing costs. It’s about increasing throughput, uptime and manufacturing performance while reducing overhead costs, operating costs and capital costs. Leveraging the data, companies can analyse their productivity and the obstacles holding it back, and they can analyse costs and the best way to reduce them.

Smart manufacturing also helps corporations become more socially responsible and make a positive contribution to their communities and globally. Social responsibility can take many forms, and each company must decide how it wants to make a positive impact. It’s about improving the quality of life for employees and everyone, locally and globally.

Smart manufacturing may be one of the only ways companies can truly achieve environmental and economic sustainability, as well as corporate social responsibility.

Smart manufacturing delivers a competitive advantage

Many manufacturers simply aren’t moving fast enough with smart manufacturing to make any kind of significant impact on their business. For those who stay status quo and keep doing the same business over and over again in the same traditional ways with no innovation, no growth, no changes and no improvements, the competition is looking to pull ahead and become the industry leader.

It’s time to embrace smart manufacturing and not to just pay lip service to it or only execute a pilot project. Companies that embrace smart manufacturing will realise bottom-line benefits; meet customer expectations; build stronger supplier partnerships; attract, hire and retain a more empowered, productive workforce; meet sustainability goals; and much more.

Manufacturers need smart manufacturing tools and technologies to help transform their operations so they can have a positive impact on the company, its people and the surrounding community. That’s the power of smart manufacturing.

*John Clemons is a solutions consultant, LifecycleIQ Services, at Rockwell Automation. He has been working in the field of manufacturing IT for more than 30 years.

Image credit: iStock.com/chinaface

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