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Smart Manufacturing and Supply Chain: Technologies & Challenges

With an array technology readily accessible and rising consumer expectations, it’s no wonder that organizations are looking at the best ways to implement technology in manufacturing and supply chains. Smart manufacturing is a way of using technology to the best advantage in factories for maximum results. According to Deloitte’s 2017 report, all successful smart factories are:

  1. Well-connected and communicate effectively within their system and to employees
  2. Optimized for the most efficiency and profit
  3. Transparent and accessible to data
  4. Proactive in anticipating issues and changes
  5. Agile in adapting to changes with minimal human interaction

In the age of digitization, globalization and the “Amazon effect,” where consumers are expecting quality products for less money in less time, businesses are looking to these kinds of systems to keep up, compete and close performance gaps. Traditional factories are just beginning to experiment with smart manufacturing; a report by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers claims that while only 3% of surveyed companies said they were ready to fully implement smart manufacturing technology, over half were experimenting. To organizations who use it properly, smart manufacturing can be highly advantageous.

Benefits Of Smart Manufacturing To The Supply Chain

Any factory can adapt and alter smart manufacturing processes since technology can be configured to suit any manufacturing need, whether it runs the entire factory or only some processes. Companies are learning to work with current technology to make operations less expensive, wasteful and timely, and more profitable, productive, reliable, safe and sustainable. Smart factories can prevent injuries and make room for jobs that are more compelling with less effort, resulting in higher job satisfaction. Consumers are interested in the many ways that new technologies can create higher quality products that cost less by using less material and more efficient manufacturing methods. Here are some of the most predominant technologies rising to meet smart factory needs:

Data, Big Data & Analytics

The kind of technology used by smart factories relies heavily on Big Data; in other words, the more, the better. Companies are shifting away from production based on forecasting, instead allowing data and algorithms to predict future demand accurately. Accumulating data on environmental conditions in the factory, market trends and machine errors can help organizations anticipate future needs and make decisions toward increasing productivity. To get such results, however, Big Data must be analyzed to recognize influential patterns and provide accurate and useful feedback. More advanced smart factories use a “digital twin” to record past and present data and analyze trends detrimental to success.

The Internet Of Things (IoT)

An effective IoT is a network that allows every object connected to it to communicate, send data and make changes based off of feedback from a central control. Factories can build IoTs to suit their needs, whether it is within the building and its equipment, with other factories, or with suppliers and consumers. An interconnected system is great at calculating a factory’s needs for production and materials by collaborating on data from a variety of sources. Sensors in machines and on products raw, in-progress or finished can provide tracking at any level in the manufacturing process.

3-D Printing & Additive Manufacturing (AM)

GE is using 3-D printing to much success since they began implementing additive manufacturing to create new fuel nozzles for their aircraft. The sophisticated AM process allows manufacturers to build objects without being hindered by difficult shapes and geometry by building one micrometer-thick layer at a time. Previous builds required the welding of 20 separate, small pieces that took more time and yielded more waste; using AM lasers, they were able to craft inexpensive, durable nozzles layer-by-layer without any wasted material. 3-D printing and AM are costly; however, they produce some of the best-engineered products. Different materials can be singled out or combined to create objects to suit needs like fire-resistance and strength.

Robotics & Artificial Intelligence (AI)

As organizations learn and seek the advantages of automated processes, they are discovering a multitude of benefits and profits to integrating robotics, including better costs, production times and safety. The China-based mobile phone manufacturer “Changing Precision Technology Company” underwent major changes when they replaced 90% of their workers with robots, yielding a product increase of 250% that also promised higher quality for their customers.

AI is an excellent tool that can make decisions based on collected and analyzed data, negating the need for human interaction on a variety of levels. It may make suggestions to increase efficiency and productivity or alert a human to a necessary action.

Challenges

For organizations looking to utilize smart manufacturing in their factories, there may seem like a lot to overcome because there is. Businesses must understand the different kinds of technology and know which to invest in to accomplish their goals, prioritize cybersecurity to avoid hackers and transition their company culture to adapt to the change.

Logistics, Integration & Adaption

The very first step is the hardest—making physical (and virtual) changes and adapting current employees and workflows to technologically-driven methods. Supply chain managers will have to develop a change management plan and answer some tough questions: Where will technology do the most good in the company? What kinds of technology to use? Which will see an ROI and which are unnecessary? The last thing a business should do is invest in technology at a rate the will reverse their returns. Ideally, an organization should start with a small project or enhance an existing process within their factory to learn the basics and get the idea.

Sourcing

Businesses not only have to find the right technology to invest in, according to Supply Chain Dive, but the right people. Finding skilled workers who are familiar with IT, OT, communicating with and integrating technology are integral since a majority of the transition to a smart factory will depend on transferring existing data and configuring the technology to work smoothly. Employees are just as valuable as the machines since they will be the ones determining how everything comes together for success.

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