If you spend any time watching television, it is likely that you will see commercials from both manufacturers and government aimed at luring new talent into the manufacturing job market. This hit home for me the other day as I was talking to an acquaintance and describing what I do for a living. After a few sentences, they said, “I have never thought of software in manufacturing.” Curious about this statement, I asked them to picture a manufacturing line. “What do you see?” I asked. They described a repeatable, automated line, with the same item moving from station to station—chunking out hundreds of identical parts. Henry Ford would be proud.
Though it is true that industry often is focused on decreasing cycle times and optimizing for a common set of parts, it is also true that there is intended variability in the process. Going back to my conversation, I replied, “Today’s manufacturing lines looks slightly different than what you described. Picture that fully automated line you described, but now with a different part at each station. For example, I was just in a diesel engine plant. There might be a 3.9 L engine followed by a 5.9 L engine followed by a 4.5 L engine, each with different emissions and accessories, cycling between stations at approximately 20 seconds.”
In industry, we call this a batch of one. If you consider the information and integration that are involved in achieving a topology like this, it is complex. However, is the line that I just described smart? Maybe. But is it “smart manufacturing”?
Smart manufacturing isn’t a milestone; it’s a journey. In some ways, it’s the same journey that industry has been on for years—one of increased visibility and optimization. Certain technologies are enabling the acceleration of this journey, such as intelligent connected devices/the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), cloud data storage and advanced analytics. Although these components enable the journey to accelerate and change course, it isn’t simply technology or its application that constitutes smart manufacturing. Instead, smart manufacturing is about thinking differently. Answer these two fundamental questions in this journey:
- How can we turn the data from our machines and processes into information?
- How can we enable (or perhaps a better term is innovate) new business ventures based on that information?
Though the engine line is complex, other things could be done within the plant in the smart manufacturing journey. For instance, though the data is dynamically transmitted from the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system down to the plant floor, how accessible is the information generated in the plant? Is that information used to further optimize the design or manufacture of the engine?
Smart manufacturing crosses all industries—not just discrete processes. At a recent Gartner Supply Chain Executive Conference, keynote speaker Stuart Pann from HP shared his company’s new Indigo digital printing technology, which enabled Diet Coke to print millions of unique labels for the It’s Mine campaign. Each bottle features a computer-generated graphic design, where no two bottles will look the same. More than simple marketing, imagine the scale and possibilities that this could offer. This technology could also apply a unique serial visual identification to each bottle (seamlessly embedded along with marketing graphics). With scanners (i.e., smartphones) or other IoT devices at various locations, Coke could offer on-the-spot discounts, visualize source information (like where the ingredients originated), or display how long the product has been on the shelf. New business models could be introduced with the same products—manufacturing could be more than the product itself but also the information around the product.
No matter what type of products you make, or type of manufacturing you are in, smart manufacturing is coming and will change how we think of manufacturing. I would encourage you to think differently—about how technology combined with people will enable BIG changes in your processes. The value of these changes can be within the four walls of the manufacturing plant or more likely will be the greater subset of the entire ecosystem of suppliers, manufacturing, distribution channels and end customers.
>>Jimmy Asher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is treasurer of the MESA International board, and is a member of both the education committee and smart manufacturing working group. He is also director of product strategy for Savigent Software. He has been active in manufacturing and system integration for more than 20 years. He has a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech.