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The Broken Promise of Smart Manufacturing

What is Smart Manufacturing?

Smart manufacturing is one of those nebulous terms with many different meanings.

At the end of the day, what people seem to talk about is the ability to automate everything. Eliminate human interaction, use a system that knows and can learn everything on its own, integrate all manufacturing software and machines together. That’s the dream, right?

Wikipedia defines smart manufacturing as a “broad category of manufacturing that employs computer-integrated manufacturing, high levels of adaptability and rapid design changes, digital information technology, and more flexible technical workforce training.” 

“The broad definition of smart manufacturing covers many different technologies. Some of the key technologies in the smart manufacturing movement include big data processing capabilities, industrial connectivity devices and services, and advanced robotics.”

Definitions aside, the goal for smart manufacturing is one that integrates all software together, makes decisions on its own, predicts the future, and learns from the past. Truthfully, it’s a very broad, loosely defined term kind of like IoT (with very little agreement among people what the goal actually is).

So, before we get too far, let’s clear up where IoT fits into the idea of smart manufacturing. IoT and IIoT are a part, or piece of the puzzle, of the smart factory. It’s giving you the connected machines and the technology to run a smart factory, but to really make a smart factory, you have to integrate all of the other software to make it work. You have to bring in ERP data, you have to push IoT data into the ERP, you have to do this with the CMMS, design software, product lifecycle management software, CRM, all of this has to come together to help you run better.

Just like smart manufacturing, people have said they’ve been doing IoT since, well, for a long time. Think, when the PLC was invented. As technology has evolved, they’ve used IoT to connect everything together. While this is 100% true, the difference with IoT is that you can do it at a much larger scale with a lot of different types of data. You can crunch all of these numbers and facts and provide meaningful information to people. This was much harder to do in the past.

So, why is smart manufacturing a broken promise if IoT has grown and made strides over the years?

Falling Short of Expectations

For decades, people have been talking about the idea of smart manufacturing and slowly chipping away at achieving it over time. It started with the development of the PLC (computer-controlled machines), then CNC machines, then being able to integrate design software with the different machines, and then the development of software that runs on CNC machines to control and predict failures and makes sure they run properly. All of this is smart manufacturing. But, there is still a ways to go before the idea of smart manufacturing is truly obtainable. (We even hosted a conference to talk about the future of smart manufacturing!)

What has been hard over time is integrating everything together.

The newer cloud-based systems, think UpKeep, Plex, Mingo, NetSuite, all of this software has open APIs that make it easier to integrate with. When you start to integrate with on-premise solutions like ERPs, well it becomes that much more difficult. It can be done, but it’s hard. It requires a lot of work to know how these systems run, and how they’re customized for each manufacturer.

That’s the beauty of cloud software. It’s making the promise of smart manufacturing that much more achievable.

Thinking of the CNC example, there are design files that can go directly to the machines and create programs, and the ability to integrate makes it really easy to do. But, the problem is that the rest is not integrated with ERP or MES, scheduling, staffing, or any other software that exists within the environment. It’s limited because it’s only so smart. Then you fall down into the world of Excel to fill those gaps which no one wants or needs.

This is where smart manufacturing falls short. You just can’t do it all, yet. It’s either been too complicated or too expensive. There are smart factory examples of manufacturers who have seemingly accomplished the idea of a smart manufacturing facility, but they are few and far between because it is so expensive and extensive to do.

Sure, Volkswagen is one of those examples. They’ve started rolling out smart manufacturing initiatives, taking place over the course of 5 years. The Adidas plant in Atlanta is another example of robot-powered, on-demand manufacturing of sneakers.

They are quite impressive examples of smart manufacturing, and a great concept to look forward to. But at this point in time, it’s not achievable for every manufacturer. At least, not yet.

What’s the Goal of a Smart Factory?

In order to create a truly smart factory, you need the money and the right software to accomplish that goal. But, really, what’s the goal here?

You want to create a smart manufacturing facility, but what does that mean? Smart manufacturing is a means to achieve the overarching goal of producing high-quality parts as quickly as possible, at a low cost to make money.

If you think about that goal, how does smart manufacturing help you? Does it help to have a fully automated plant? Maybe. Is big data the solution? Maybe. Does it help to automate certain parts of the processes and integrate your ERP and Manufacturing Analytics solution? Again, maybe.

What you want to achieve with smart manufacturing comes down to what you need to achieve as a company. A fully automated plant may not work for every situation or every type of manufacturer. It all comes down to your goals and how you define smart manufacturing. It’s different for everyone, and that’s ok.

Do you need AI that understands everything and runs your plant for you, requiring no work on your end? Or is just needing all of the manufacturing software integrated together giving you, and your team, the ability to go to one place to see how the company is performing? Or, is it understanding the problems and everyone at every different level has the same visibility from their point of view and they know what to do and the system is making suggestions about it?

It could be all of those things…. or none. It depends on what your plant needs to do to accomplish the goal. At the end of the day, you have to produce a high-quality part as quickly as you can at a low cost.

But, you need software to help you do that.

Use Manufacturing Software to Discover the Problems

The idea behind a smart factory is to eliminate the grunt work that often takes up too many of your valuable resources – time and people.

There’s all this paper – spreadsheets, paper slips, whiteboards – on the floor that still governs how people run their factories, years and years later. Replacing all of that with a system so that it’s not ad hoc at every single company, building on best practices, having it do all of the data collection, and eliminating the manual data collection and grunt work, will really deliver on that promise of a smart factory.

Consider the software as the “eyes on your data”. It’s providing the ability for your employees to apply their knowledge and skills to the problems, not just dig through data to find the problems.

As a software company, we know the benefit this can provide. When we were going through the Ameren Accelerator program, we worked on a program that could look at this massive volume of data, tell you when something went wrong, tell you where it came from, and the likely cause. It essentially was the “engineer’s eyes on the data”.

“Why this is important?”, you ask? Well, do you want to pay engineers to look at reports every day and figure out what’s going wrong, or should the system do that for them? If the system does it for them, they can use their hard-earned knowledge and skills to fix the problems so they don’t happen again.

While this was only a proof of concept, it embodies the true goal of smart manufacturing – using smart software to discover the problems and allowing your skilled employees to take the next steps.

How to Deliver the Promise of Smart Manufacturing

Beyond getting the integrations set up, a smart factory needs a good culture to succeed. Culture is a big part of it. Everyone has to play nicely together. At the end of the day, nothing works if you don’t have a good culture.

If you want to continue to improve, if you want to become a world-class manufacturer, if you want to break down silos between the different departments and have people work together, culture matters.

If you want to dominate the industry, you create a great culture and implement smart manufacturing. It’s a win-win situation.

While it is a win-win situation, to a certain extent the dream of software running the factory on its own is quite frankly, a little ridiculous, right now. Think about Skynet in the Terminator movie. It’s way beyond the capabilities we have today.

But, creating a great culture and having systems that do the grunt work for your people which enable them to focus their attention on the areas that they really need to focus on to drive improvement, that’s realistic. It exists today.

True, the problem is integrating all of the software seamlessly, but the pieces of the puzzle exist right now to make that happen.

To put those pieces together, you need to understand your goals as a company and how smart manufacturing can help you achieve those goals. When you do that, you can start the puzzle.

That’s what is going to make the promise of smart manufacturing that much more achievable. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s a goal to work towards.


Wikipedia: Guide to Smart Manufacturing

Wired: Inside Adidas’ Robot-Powered, On-Demand Sneaker Factory

Forbes: Volkswagen Is Accelerating One Of The World’s Biggest Smart-Factory Projects

Bryan Sapot
Bryan Sapot
Bryan Sapot is a lifelong entrepreneur, speaker, CEO, and founder of Mingo. With more than 24 years of experience in manufacturing technology, Bryan is known for his deep manufacturing industry insights. Throughout his career, he’s built products and started companies that leveraged technology to solve problems to make the lives of manufacturers easier. Follow Bryan on LinkedIn here.