The business case for implementing smart factory technologies is compelling, with tangible improvements in revenue, output, quality, and safety, alongside reduced costs. It is not surprising, therefore, that smart manufacturing technologies are becoming an increasingly important competition driver.
The technologies that are part of the Smart Factory include cloud computing, edge computing, vision systems, robotic process automation, predictive analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, big data, and industrial internet of things, as well as augmented, virtual, and mixed reality.
Each one individually has significant potential and creates opportunities for your business. When combined, the benefits increase considerably.
Implementing smart manufacturing solutions is not without risk, however, so where do you start? If you’ve already started, where do you go next? What are the practicalities of making the transition to smart manufacturing?
Important Practicalities to Consider
There are some important practical considerations to think about before embarking on major smart manufacturing projects. Many of these considerations relate to change management and include ensuring there is senior leadership buy-in, sufficient skills available for the initiative, and support for those involved.
Other considerations include the divide that sometimes exists in many manufacturing organisations between IT and OT. The success of smart manufacturing initiatives often hinges on these critical business functions working together.
Two other important considerations are worth mentioning:
- Integration – you will have different machines, equipment, devices, sensors, platforms, and systems that make up your manufacturing operations and supply chain management processes. The integration of these various technologies and machines is an important step.
- Connectivity – connectivity and the transfer of data are crucial to the implementation of smart manufacturing solutions, so it is essential to have a robust IT infrastructure to provide the required level of connectivity.
Finally, it is important to focus on business value when deciding on strategies and implementing smart manufacturing solutions. Without a proper focus on business value, improvements can be made in specific areas, but the benefits won’t extend much further. The best approach is to look at the overall objectives of the business to decide on the smart manufacturing technologies that offer the most value.
Progressing Towards a Smart Manufacturing Approach
You need to move to the next stage of your smart manufacturing journey, but what should you do first? How do you ensure you don’t take missteps? How do you progress without diverting significant resources? Can you get a short-term and medium-term return on investment as well as a long-term return?
Let’s look at three key strategies:
- Trial projects
- Structured incremental implementation
- Simulation tools
A combination of the three, depending on the status of your existing operations, is often the best approach to keep costs under control, maximise return on investment, and ensure the transition is as smooth as possible, particularly in relation to product output and customer impact.
Trial projects can be a useful approach in a wide range of situations, not just at the start of your Smart Manufacturing journey. With a trial project, you can ringfence costs and structure the work parameters as tightly as you want.
This will let you identify risks and areas for improvement, and it will demonstrate where you may encounter resistance, bottlenecks, or barriers when you start to scale up.
In addition, a trial project will give you a better indication of the real return on investment you can achieve from transitioning to Smart Manufacturing.
Structured Incremental Approach
Whether you go with the trial project option or not, adopting a structured, incremental approach is almost always the best option.
How far you go and how quickly depends on your current circumstances and immediate plans. For example, it might save you in the long run if you increase the scale of a project if it requires a considerable investment in new equipment.
It’s important you don’t go too far too fast, however. Upgrading all your legacy systems in a short period of time is rarely the best option, for example. Rather than a big bang investment, the more successful approach is usually a carefully planned evolution.
The most obvious reason for this is the fact it might not be practical, for financial or other business reasons, to upgrade all legacy systems in a short space of time. Furthermore, it might not even be necessary, i.e., you might not need to upgrade all your legacy systems to achieve your Smart Manufacturing goals.
It is also possible to explore and analyse the implementation of Smart Manufacturing processes and technologies in your facility using simulation tools. One of the most effective is using digital twins.
By creating digital twins of your current equipment and processes, you can model various options and scenarios to identify the best approach, helping you decide on the next Smart Factory steps to take.
Starting and Continuing the Transition
Smart Manufacturing may be a buzzword, but the technologies involved are driving transformational change in manufacturing companies in all sectors, including the life sciences sector. Companies that take a strategic approach and continuously improve their operations with new smart factory initiatives will be best placed to respond to the needs of the market today and in the future.