4 Steps To A Smart Factory

Manufacturing is complicated, there’s no way around that. It’s the complexity in processes, materials, components and supply chains that drive much of the variability in quality, and have dramatic impacts on productivity, and it’s the resulting drain on profitability that incentivizes manufacturers to revolutionize their factories. Making this transition from a legacy factory where so much is unknown to a smart factory is nothing less that a paradigm shift both technically and in terms of the people involved, so in this short blog we’ll discuss 4 important steps, as we see them, to making the transition to a smart factory.

Leadership Vision

I see it all too frequently in the conversations I have with companies that express interest in our digital work instruction platform (vksapp.com). “It’s really great, but we’re not anywhere close to being ready for that.” This is a mindset that, although not unique to manufacturing, is most destructive in manufacturing and is probably a result of people simply not knowing what they don’t know. They don’t understand the amount of clarity, data, visibility, etc. they are missing and what that insight can provide. How the use of that data can be transformative to the operation. They can’t see past their own organizational weaknesses to have a vision of the future. It’s these companies that are accepting paper routers, and data collection using a pencil. They acknowledge that the little data they do collect will just end up in a cabinet somewhere, never to be seen again. The real question here is why. Why would this be acceptable? At the highest level, it’s simply leadership. These organizations needs leadership that sees the potential of the team and the operation. A leader that truly understands that doing nothing is a decision in and of itself, and that it’s the wrong decision if you want to be competitive in the decades to come.

Software Integration

Once a transformative leader makes the decision to begin the journey to a smart factory, and all of the planning, roadmapping, benchmarking, etc. is established, the first logical step is to integrate software solutions that allow for digital communication and data capture. Most manufacturers, even those still highly dependent upon paper and manual processes, have numerous software solutions that all serve different purposes and most times each application operates in it’s own little world. Integrating those application, or bringing in newer systems that allow for integration can be a massive step in the right direction. Today, there’s no reason why your ERP, LMS, QMS and MES applications don’t talk to each other. Connecting your ERP and MES applications will facilitate a paperless shop floor where employees access digital work instructions, perform and record measurements electronically, and access copious amounts of performance data. Likewise, integrating your MES and QMS system can trigger automated corrective actions and improve quality. Digital solutions can also simplify things like document management, version control, access restriction and will dramatically enhance traceability and accountability. This will likely require investments in modern software solutions and additional hardware, but a well done ROI analysis will quickly resolve concerns about the value of these investments.

Intelligent Machines

When the software applications that control and manage your operation are modernized and integrated, it’s time to take a closer look at your equipment, tools, sensors, etc. keeping in mind of course that modern shop floor software solutions also have the ability to interface with machines. Ideally, your machines will have the ability to communicate across the network with the MES so that OEE, machine settings & data, Andon and other components can be triggered, recorded and tracked automatically. Connecting to this Industrial Internet of Things is a significant step to fully merging your physical machines with your cyber systems. With the addition of fully connected machines, Engineers and Managers will have visibility to data that will be instrumental to improving efficiency, and maximizing production schedules. Maintenance teams will gain insights into why machines go down and be better able to predict and prevent unscheduled downtime. Operators will be able to focus more on running the machines and less on recording data.

Integrate The People

Looking at your newly modernized factory, you may think you’re done. Far from it. People will continue to play an instrumental role in the smart factory, albeit a different role than in the past. In legacy factories, people have fairly straight forward jobs in the operation but generally they trigger machines to do work. Although oversimplified, they essentially load machines, set up machines, assemble products, move inventory and fix things that break, among other tasks. The point is that the people are operating as an independent part of the operation. Much of the operational knowledge is stored in their brains, and typically none of that stored information is really the same from person to person. The operation really depends on the people to make decisions. When a machine sounds “weird”, call Cindy and she’ll fix it. If that part measures out of specification, the operator stops the machine, fills out a sheet of paper and pages Jim to disposition the nonconforming part. These scenarios are real situations that occur in factories everyday. Integrating the people into the smart factory means their interaction with everything changes. Operators may still set up the equipment, but they’ll do it from the MES application following digital work instructions, but the machine will stop automatically because the vibration sensor triggers it to stop. When it stops, the machine talks to the MES application and creates the maintenance ticket which automatically sends a message to the technician. When the technician responds, she will follow digital troubleshooting instructions that dynamically help her make decisions on the root cause of the failure and recommend solutions. As you can see, people are still critical, but their role is substantially different.

The message here is that if your factory is somewhere in this lifecycle, you’re probably on your way. There’s a lot of work ahead of you, but if the decision on the front end has been made to make the transition to a smart factory, then the hardest part is done. That’s not to say the rest is easy, only that having the right people in place to see beyond these 4 big barriers is critical and for so many companies proves to be too difficult. For these companies, they’ll continue to plug away, trying to make small incremental improvements, grabbing that low hanging fruit while the truly transformative companies reach the ripest fruit at the top of the tree.

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