It’s been called the fourth industrial revolution. Smart factories will change the manufacturing landscape around the world, heralding a new age of productivity, efficiency, responsiveness, and product customization. And serious manufacturing people—like CEOs and industry analysts—think the reality is not very far away.
The revolution began a few decades ago, when manufacturers started creating smart manufacturing cells, for the first time merging information technology with manufacturing technology in real-time, albeit on a small scale. Then, as the technology progressed, along came smart production lines, and then smart individual factories.
Today, with global enterprises and highly complex supply chains, the idea of smart factories has evolved to mean a smart manufacturing enterprise.
The common theme has been to use intelligence and communications between devices and people, to drive better, faster and more efficient production. It’s one thing, however, to do so within a cell or line or single facility. It’s quite another to do it across an entire enterprise.
What will the smart enterprise look like?
For one, it will look like a single functioning machine, despite the underlying complexity of dozens of plants, hundreds of products and processes, and intricate supply chains. Imagine these possible scenarios:
- As a customer places an order online, the part is stamped out or poured or fabricated or programmed (or built there on the spot with a 3D printer), and shipped that day from the closest or most available or most profitable plant, with no human intervention in directing the activity.
- If a quality problem is detected on a production line, all products that could be faulty are instantly isolated with advanced product traceability processes, no matter what continent they’re on. The proper lines would be halted at any impacted plant using that process, and the problem might be fully contained within minutes, if not seconds, of the problem being discovered.
- If the market shifts, manufacturers will be able to roll-out new products globally with a “vertical launch” of high efficiency from day one.
Meanwhile, virtually all waste and inefficiencies might be swept away from the global supply chain as every piece of the manufacturing machine works in harmony. Production is coordinated perfectly with upstream and downstream partners. It’s Lean manufacturing on steroids.
Why are serious people talking about this now? Because for the first time, the essential technologies that make it possible finally exist at all levels, across not only the factory, but up and down the entire enterprise. Intelligence permeates every corner of today’s manufacturing enterprise, from the RFID tag on the part, to the machine that moves it on the production line, to the truck that hauls it away. Now the trick is to make all these systems work in harmony as one.
As Travis Hessman writes in a recent Industry Week article, “The key to making this magic work, and the trick to making all future smart factories work, is creating a dense mesh of technologies that are integrated and cooperating into a smarter, more efficient whole.”
In other words, the fundamental systems of manufacturing—enterprise resource planning (ERP), product lifecycle management (PLM), manufacturing execution systems (MES) and industrial automation—have to operate together, seamlessly, like a single well-oiled machine.
Will this revolution really happen, or is it just a futuristic dream?
I not only think it will happen, I think it is inevitable as enterprises standardize systems and adopt platform-based strategies with greater process standardization and integration across their manufacturing landscape, as more and more market leaders are doing every year. Once these companies are truly networked, from design to the factory floor, from the corner office to the farthest corners of the supply chain, the smart manufacturing enterprise will be within reach.
Technologically speaking, it’s possible to see your whole enterprise. And, you can give the button that controls it all, (if you want to) in real-time, to the person who sits in the corner office.
Are smart enterprises going to happen? I think the answer is a no-brainer.
Next post, I’ll write about some of the changes this revolution is likely to bring to the global marketplace.