Key Questions to Make Smart Manufacturing Work

Feb. 26, 2019
Asking important questions—and in turn letting those answers lead you to the next questions—will put you on the path to smart manufacturing. Here are some examples to consider.

Smart manufacturing covers quite a bit of territory, and many new technologies play a part. So asking the right questions is the key to making progress.

What are some key questions to ask now? This is part of what we are learning in MESA’s Smart Manufacturing Community. As ever, the right questions span many topics. Here are a few examples of what we’ve learned to ask.


One of the top stumbling blocks for many companies has been ensuring that smart manufacturing projects truly foster business success. Key questions include:

  • How will this serve our customers better? In one example, a company was able to radically improve a retail customer’s profitability using new software on mobile devices for end-to-end lifecycle tracking for a seasonal product.
  • Can this help us be a disruptor rather than being disrupted?


The decades-old questions of how to organize are getting more complex. With new technologies comes the opportunity—and the need—to work more effectively across disciplines and organizations.

  • How do we break down functional silos to ensure IT and OT are working together effectively? How about enterprise, plants and warehouse collaboration? In one case, machine learning analysis uncovered a problem the operations team could not address. Because the data scientists did not understand the process, they did not focus on the right problems.
  • What shift could we make to enable greater alignment between our organization and our customers? Our suppliers? Our partners?


The mindset, attitude and understanding of the people and the culture really matter; they can be stumbling blocks or keys to smart manufacturing success.

  • Is our culture ready for a big change, or should we take it in small increments? We talked about this in a panel discussion webcast.
  • Is there enough trust between us and our suppliers? We heard about a company that requires suppliers to share raw dimensional data and part analysis on key components. In other cases, we might need to pay for that.
  • Do we have a strong change management program running in parallel to the project?


Many companies have deep experience improving processes with Lean and Six Sigma programs, and these approaches can support success with smart manufacturing as well.

  • How can we improve overall process flows and reliability? One company discovered that a process ran out of spec for three days without anyone raising an alarm. They had no process in place to raise an alarm.
  • What are the process barriers to information flows that create a digital thread?


Much of the “newness” of smart manufacturing is around new technologies such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Big Data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), robots and cobots, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and 3D printing. There are key questions to ask no matter which technologies you might deploy.

  • Does our network infrastructure support cloud in all locations? We heard about several examples of locations (even in the U.S.) where Internet connection is not reliable or fast enough to support production data flow in the cloud.
  • How can I maximize my existing technologies’ support for these new technologies? For example, how can you configure the manufacturing execution system (MES), enterprise resource planning (ERP), product lifecycle management (PLM) and supply chain management (SCM) systems to cleanly manage data from and processes using the new technologies? Or do you need a new approach to them?
  • Is my cybersecurity up to the task across systems, locations and trading partners?

Ongoing Q&A

I hope the answers to those questions will point you in the right direction. Once you answer these, you will inevitably find more questions to ask. And some questions you will need to ask again and again.

We hope you will join us in the MESA Smart Manufacturing Community. You don’t need to be a member or pay or even commit. Bring your key questions—and be ready to share the answers you’ve found in this safe, non-commercial environment.

Asking questions, answering them and being guided to the next set of questions is very smart. It’s the right foundation for smart manufacturing.

>>Julie Fraser is leader and facilitator of the MESA Smart Manufacturing Community, and a lifetime member of MESA International. She is also principal and founder of Iyno Advisors Inc.

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