Era of the Smart Factory: how can manufacturers get to the future quicker?

This is a guest blogpost by Antony Bourne, Industries President at IFS

Businesses are constantly told they will go bust if they do not digitally transform and quick, but for manufacturers it’s not quite as simple. If production goes down even for a day, the impact can be irreversible, with millions in revenue potentially lost.

From an ergonomic, economic, and environmental perspective, smart factories – where robots and machines relay real-time data from connected devices to learn and adapt to new demands and autonomously manage entire production processes – are heralded as the way manufacturers can strive towards true digital transformation.

However, for many the smart factory is a faraway utopia. According to a recent Capgemini study, while 76% of manufacturers have an ongoing smart factory initiative or are working towards one, only 14% are satisfied with their level of success. However, manufacturers should not feel overwhelmed, and those embarking on their journey should not change too much too soon or do so without the proper counsel.

Here are some essentials for any manufacturer considering a smart factory rollout.

  1. Business first approach

Business owners or project managers and directors should want to rollout a smart factory initiative not to tell customers or the board that they are ‘digitally transforming’, but to achieve better business results; futureproof its existence, and derive greater value from production plants and the entire ecosystem. Importantly, a smart factory should form part of a wider interconnected IT landscape and be a holistic endeavour.

One business goal for any manufacturer should be achieving full visibility across all assets. As we’ve witnessed recently in the construction industry with the collapse of major contractor Carillion, achieving visibility across a business is paramount. This means manufacturers need to become even more data-driven. Data is the lifeblood of a business, and the more real-time data a manufacturer can draw value from, the more likely they are to achieve full transparency across their estate.

Smart factories give manufacturers the ability to benefit from the accumulation of massive amounts of valuable data. This enables them to identify and address quality issues; rapidly learn and adapt to new demands; predict operational inefficiencies or oscillations in sourcing and demand, and respond to customers’ needs ahead of time.

  1. Connecting physical & digital technologies

Some manufacturers have had mechanical systems in place for over 50 years. With the emergence of technologies such as Robotic Processing Automation (RPA) that present the opportunity to drive transformation in the sector, it is important that manufacturers take advantage and replace outdated machinery when possible, not just update it.

Manufacturers must also move their datacentre to the cloud. Escaping legacy systems enables manufacturers to scale horizontally and vertically quickly, as well as reduce costs, boost efficiency and lower time to recovery. Running off a cloud infrastructure is key to maximising the value and ROI of real-time data that a smart factory produces. For manufacturers yet to make the leap, moving disaster recovery and backups to the cloud is a good place to start.

One technology essential to any smart factory, that sits in-between physical and digital infrastructure, is the Internet of Things (IoT). The benefits of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) have been widely espoused. IoT devices derive valuable data from sensors outside of the manufacturing plant and from machines on the shop floor, but importantly, also enable businesses to expand their operations and offer new services to customers. Servitization is upon us, and manufacturers not focused on adding services onto their products to make them more outcome-based with the help of IoT solutions will miss out on valuable business opportunities, or worse.

  1. Focus on people and partnerships

The face of the shop floor will change unimaginably over the coming years. Robots will work autonomously 24/7 in a windowless, lightless environment; but despite this there is one aspect that won’t change – people will still be a manufacturers’ most important asset. Reskilling and upskilling employees, opening their eyes to the art of the possible and getting them on board with change – a change that will likely reshape their purpose in the workplace – is a massive but necessary undertaking.

Manufacturers also need to seek expert advice, or partner with technology providers knowledgeable and proven in the manufacturing arena that can help them realise better business benefits.

  1. Start small and scale

Smart factory investments need to be broken down into bite-sized chunks, with specific opportunities realised first. Value and growth can be created through scaling a single asset and testing the processes and technologies around it. There are some incredible centres in the UK that can help manufacturers test these concepts in a safe, manageable environment.

Take Catapult. Catapult is a network of physical centres designed to help organisations transform ideas into new products and services. Manufacturers can take advantage of initiatives like this to safely test assets with zero downtime in production. Once perfected, the solution can then scale to other assets of the business, such as production lines and factories, with complete confidence in performance.

The true power of the smart factory is its ability to adapt and grow with the shifting needs of an organisation. Manufacturers need to take one step at a time in getting to the future, and recognise there is the right expertise out there to help them achieve their business goals, by implementing a harmonious, automated, and resilient smart factory.

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