Advances in technology such as digital twins, artificial intelligence, cloud and edge computing, and pervasive systems integration are converging on manufacturing. It’s not the technology, but the ecosystems they spawn, that will shape the decades to come. Manufacturers must learn how to do business and compete in a new era of innovation-driven ecosystems.
Many industry analysts have made the case that the big returns in smart manufacturing are found when companies view the digital transformation initiative as an outward-looking innovation for the entire value chain instead of a strictly inward-looking improvement for operations at individual factories. A 2019 survey by Accenture, “From Inventory to Influencer—The Mover Becomes the Shaker,” shows that manufacturing leaders moved beyond cost optimization in operations and invested in technology platforms with capabilities to fuel customer centricity, partner co-innovation, and ecosystem orchestration in a way conducive to business growth.
We are at an inflection point in manufacturing technology adoption, where new digital infrastructure and platforms are catalysts for the fourth industrial revolution—only if the ecosystem evolves to support and leverage the infrastructure for higher levels of digital connectivity, orchestration, and optimization in the manufacturing value chain.
Ecosystem shared resources
The ability to share resources is one of the benefits of an ecosystem. Cloud computing technologies provide opportunities for an ecosystem to exchange data and tools more effectively. Examples of cloud-based services include:
- Ecosystem-ready supplier connector: A cloud-based data exchange with suppliers eliminates the need for suppliers to connect directly via electronic data interchange or other custom business-to-business messages to each customer’s supplier management system. Instead, suppliers can agree to support the data exchange standards of a shared, digital pipeline for the ecosystem.
- Cloud service component library: Cloud services—like specialized analytical algorithms—can be made available to an ecosystem that is set up to leverage these services in their internal systems. These specialized tools can be made available to small manufacturers that typically cannot afford to develop their own algorithms.
- Distributed data collection validated using blockchain: Blockchain creates a distributed, shared ledger for recording the history of transactions. It is more protected because it is stored in a distributed network of ledger holders in an ecosystem that is resistant to tampering.
The above are only a few examples of how manufacturers can leverage cloud services in an ecosystem. MESA International explains in the paper “Smart Manufacturing and Cloud Computing” how cloud computing is a key technology enabler for many of the connectivity and orchestration goals of the smart manufacturing ecosystem.
Ecosystem shared knowledge
Businesses face growing pressures to focus on fewer core activities to avoid the increased cost of keeping up with innovation and complexity. Focus allows partners in the ecosystem to target their capital and technology investments to fewer core competencies. While each company is optimizing and trying to “do more with less,” the ecosystem shifts the culture to a more practical and scalable approach of “do more with more.”
A diverse ecosystem can leverage the larger pool of knowledge across partners with different specializations and potentially accelerate learning, innovation, and technology adoption in the ecosystem. An ecosystem community can become a source of global support for shared ecosystem resources. Community models can enable developers and independent security researchers to conduct security audits and testing at multiple levels to increase overall trust in the ecosystem infrastructure.
The technology available today can help manufacturers tackle all kinds of problems and reduce cost within their organizations, but the big opportunities lie in optimizing the entire value chain. By leveraging an ecosystem, manufacturers can grow the business by delivering more value through more resources to more satisfied end customers.
>>Conrad Leiva is chairman of the Smart Manufacturing Working Group at MESA International and periodically posts on his Manufacturing Operations Management blog. As vice president of product strategy and alliances at iBASEt, he consults many aerospace and defense companies on how to streamline business processes and information flow among engineering, planning, inventory, quality, production, services and supply chain disciplines. His work has recently focused on smart manufacturing, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and the digital thread between engineering, business, manufacturing and sustainment systems working with PLM, ERP, and automation partners.