“Factories of the future” or smart factories can no longer be referenced to a future time. The “factory of the future” is the “factory of now”— or the “factory of today”. As our manufacturing processes continue to evolve at an ever-increasing speed, we are seeing an influx of automated and IT-driven or “smart” processes that are rapidly increasing efficiency and revolutionizing the workplace. The pace of these changes has never been witnessed before in modern times.
Take for instance our changing manufacturing shop floors—in some industries, we are advancing from smart cells and smart lines to entire smart enterprises defined by total interconnectivity—from the front office to the production line.
In more extreme cases, innovations and technology changes are reducing some factories to an automated box. These highly evolved, unified plants are becoming capable of running and responding to change with little human intervention, and because of that, we are seeing a shift towards employees that are equipped with high levels of technical expertise and critical thinking skills that enable them to oversee today’s highly automated, computerized operations.
So what exactly makes a factory “smart”?
Think repeatable events or processes, such as automated machine setups completely run by robotics and software, or sensors and digital readers that efficiently check raw materials out of inventory and auto-track materials as they move from location to location, or “lights out” manufacturing, where machines run with little need for the involvement of people. The possibilities are endless, as are the improvements smart technology can have on a process, its speed and its accuracy.
Smart Factory Benefits for the Manufacturing Industry
There are several trends that provide benefits we can expect to see as manufacturing continues its journey towards smart processes. Here are just a few:
- Increased efficiency and quality: First, smart technology can help manufacturers achieve higher levels of efficiency and quality in turn satisfying the customer’s need for quick turnarounds, competitive pricing and top-notch quality.
- Greater levels of customization: Smart processes can lead to the achievement of higher levels of customization, which becomes an absolute necessity, as more and more customers are demanding it. Smart processes will allow the customer to essentially run the production line fulfilling their orders in the volumes required when they need them.
- Better visibility of performance: Smart factories are giving manufacturers a much clearer picture of their operation’s performance than ever before. It provides a clear view of the impact that suppliers, processes, equipment and employees are having on both quality and efficiency, which provides accountability and the opportunity to make continuous improvements in real time.
- Create jobs: Oftentimes we hear the mi-s-perception that automation destroys jobs. On the contrary, as factories get smarter there is a predicted multiplier effect in which more indirect jobs will be created. Smart manufacturing approximates that there are 12 million American manufacturing workers and it is estimated that as more and more factories adopt a smart business model, the potential to increase the number of good, sustainable indirect manufacturing jobs could double, triple or even quadruple.
- Remain competitive: Delaying the inevitable, will in effect, hand your business to the competition—smart factories are popping up around the globe today, which highlights the importance of adopting these practices now. It’s perhaps the only way for U.S. manufacturers to remain competitive.
In today’s global marketplace, the world of manufacturing continues to rapidly change making it paramount that we evolve as well by adopting new processes and strategies that will improve our efficiency and overall competitiveness. Developing a plan and investing in technology is step one.
Investing in technology is investing in your future.
Is your factory making the “smart” move?