John Clemons consults for Rockwell Automation and Maverick Technologies, a leading platform-independent automation solutions provider.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is well underway, and it’s transforming manufacturing back into an economic powerhouse. Ideas behind smart manufacturing are fueling it.
There are many technologies coming together to support smart manufacturing, including the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), artificial intelligence, digital threads, digital twins, cloud and edge computing, just to name a few.
Fundamentally, smart manufacturing is really just smart people using smart technology to transform the business, create new business strategies, streamline and eliminate business and manufacturing processes and empower teams to drive the enterprise forward, doing new things never before possible.
There’s a lot of smart manufacturing technology out there, but ultimately, smart manufacturing is not about the technology. It’s about what can be done with the technology.
New Business Strategies
Smart manufacturing is about developing new business strategies, and it starts with embracing manufacturing as a core competency. There are many crucial aspects to running a successful business enterprise such as finances, purchasing, marketing, sales and distribution, human resources, supply chain, logistics and much more.
However, if you’re a manufacturing company, then the actual manufacturing of your products needs to be on that list. Manufacturing needs to be one of your core competencies, and you need to embrace manufacturing as a core competency. That means you invest in it, you make it better, you use it as a key differentiator, you work to continually improve it, you hire the best people you can to work in it, you buy the best equipment you can, you train your people continually and much more. It means no matter what other type of company you view yourself as—a marketing company, a customer-centric company or whatever—you also view yourself as a manufacturing company with manufacturing as one of your core competencies.
With manufacturing as a core competency, you can use that foundation to build new business strategies and manufacturing strategies that can differentiate you from your competition and can grow your market share and your business.
For example, mass customization can be a business strategy. It’s the opposite of mass production. Mass production is all about creating mass numbers of products that are all alike. Mass customization is all about creating a mass number of products that are all different, tailored specifically for each individual customer.
Product as a service can also be a business strategy. This takes the product to the next level. It means you understand how your customer uses your product, and you provide services wrapped around your product to help your customers use your product better, do new things with your product and, most especially, better serve their customers with your products.
Smart manufacturing is about empowering teams to do new and better things that were never before thought possible. It’s about providing the training to the teams so they understand the underlying details of what is going on and why it’s going on. It’s about providing them with the right tools and the right data at the right time so they can make decisions. It’s about empowering them to take charge and make things better, making changes along the way to improve the business.
If people don’t have the information they need to make decisions, it often means the decisions simply don’t get made and nothing changes, or the decisions are delayed too long until the impact of the decision is almost negligible.
It means the teams are trained to understand the data they have and what it really means, they’re trained to draw the right conclusions from the data and they’re empowered to make decisions and take actions. Not just standard procedure actions, but new actions. Actions to change things and make things better. Actions to take the business in new directions because they are empowered to make things better.
Smart manufacturing is about streamlining and eliminating processes that aren’t needed. The last thing you want to do with smart manufacturing is using the technology to automate a mess because then all you will have is an automated mess.
Smart manufacturing done right means there should be many legacy processes that simply aren’t needed anymore—processes that have grown up over time to fill in the gaps in the manufacturing processes and the business processes as well as the gaps in technology and tools. With smart manufacturing, these legacy processes may be eliminated or, if not eliminated, streamlined.
Smart manufacturing done right means the approach to manufacturing changes. For example, instead of trying to test the quality of a product, quality is built into the product from the beginning. First-pass quality becomes one of the driving metrics of the manufacturing operations. That means the approach to testing can and should change. The testing processes should be streamlined, and many of them should be eliminated because smart manufacturing provides a new approach to the business and to manufacturing.
With regard to processes here, I’m talking about manufacturing processes, business processes, physical processes and digital processes. All processes should be on the table to be eliminated or streamlined. All aspects of the business should be reviewed. Digital processes that produce silos of data where different people refer to “my data” should be eliminated. Physical processes that are redundant should be eliminated. Manufacturing processes must be streamlined. Business processes must be streamlined. Smart manufacturing technology must be designed to support the streamlined processes, not the legacy processes.
There’s a lot of smart manufacturing technology out there, but smart manufacturing is not about technology. It’s about smart people using smart technology to create new business strategies, to streamline and eliminate business and manufacturing processes, and to empower teams to drive the enterprise forward. Smart manufacturing is transforming manufacturing back into an economic powerhouse.