Smart Manufacturing—A Distant Shore?

April 27, 2017
Though the promise of smart manufacturing technologies might not be realized fully yet, the cost of implementing traditional MES and realizing the benefits of connecting your business systems to the plant floor systems continues to fall.

Manufacturing leaders have long taken advantage of advances in technology to improve efficiency, reduce costs and increase regulatory compliance by applying automation to their manufacturing processes. These advances have largely focused on machine- and line-level improvements with integration from business systems for the purpose of eliminating data entry mistakes while enhancing production and information visibility. Much great work has been done to standardize communication between the business and the plant floor, embodied in standards such as ISA-95, and many good manufacturing execution system (MES) platforms and products have been created and implemented to address these needs.

Now, with manufacturers facing increasing demand for customization, short lead times, and lots of small-label products produced nearer the end user, many people are wondering whether they should continue with MES investment, or wait and see what smart manufacturing brings to the table. But even though a lot of R&D work is underway, it seems that realizing the promise of smart manufacturing may be years away. A distant shore. Or is it?

In reality, smart manufacturing is not a new technology, and it’s not really even an entirely new way of thinking about things. Sure, there are amazing new technologies, including smart Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices, cloud-based workflows, machine learning, robotics and others. But, though the promise of those technologies might not be realized fully yet, the cost of implementing traditional MES and realizing the benefits of connecting your business systems to the plant floor systems continues to fall, and the capabilities continue to modularize and increase.

Rather than thinking about this as traditional MES vs. smart manufacturing, I propose that it is better to think about smart manufacturing as traditional MES today, with more benefits to be brought by integrating IIoT, machine learning and other new technologies as they mature.

The real impact of smart manufacturing is in connecting and exposing manufacturing information to drive business gains—not in implementing new technology for technology’s sake. Organizations such as MESA International have been providing thought leadership in this space for many years, with a rich resource library to show for it. If you are working to understand how to apply smart manufacturing today, start with understanding the business case behind it.

MESA International has great resources, including an ROI Guidebook, to facilitate this. Additionally, MESA’s Global Education Program offers MOM/MES transformation Certificate of Competency training to help you learn how to think about the space. Finally, MESA has authored a white paper around the smart manufacturing landscape; it’s available on the MESA website at

Far from being a distant shore, smart manufacturing is here today. If you are hesitating to jump in, enhance your understanding and knowledge by becoming a member of MESA International today and accessing the rich resources therein.

>>Jim Toman is director of the smart manufacturing practice at Grantek, and an Americas board member of MESA International. For more than two decades, he has been at the forefront of analyzing, specifying, developing and standardizing innovative IT solutions for manufacturers. From defining early data-driven automated distribution systems to helping shape the requirements for modern MES, he has brought value in diverse industries in both discrete and process manufacturing environments. Toman is an active member of MESA International, participating in the Technical Committee and serving on the Americas Board of Directors. He is the current chairman of the MESA Food Safety & Traceability working group.

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