The Smart Manufacturing Track

smart-manufacturingThis week, the largest and most advanced manufacturing organizations from around the world will gather in Chicago for IndustryWeek’s Manufacturing & Technology Conference & Expo. Manufacturing professionals from all walks of life – operating and technology leadership, plant / line managers, R&D specialists, and even HR representatives -will gather to share success stories, discuss lessons learned, and hypothesize about the future innovations in manufacturing. Even vendors and services provides will be on hand to show off the latest whiz-bang products or convince companies of the next game-changing methodology which will lead to better operational efficiency, improved product quality, and supremely satisfied customers. The typical tracks are all scheduled to be discussed: continuous improvement, leadership and innovation, workforce development, and technology strategy, but one topic captured my attention: the Smart Manufacturing Track.

Now, what is “Smart Manufacturing” and how does this differ from technology strategy? According to the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition, smart manufacturing is…

…the ability to solve existing and future problems via an open infrastructure that allows solutions to be implemented at the speed of business while creating advantaged value.

In other words, smart manufacturing is using real-time data to improve operations across stakeholders. Really, the key-term here is “real-time”. This involves having access to machine, employee, and supplier information instantly to help decision makers solve problems in a timely and trusted manner. Of course, to make this happen, all the current buzzwords thrown around in the manufacturing world – internet of things, cloud, automation, robotics, additive manufacturing, etc. – are utilized in one way or another, but in a more holistic, standardized, and open manner. In its current form, these technologies, individually, can be difficult to implement as they are complex and costly. Each technology provider has their own ecosystem that makes portability and compatibility across environments challenging. Similar to how current home automation solutions have their own proprietary hub station, which other devices communicate with. Connected home adopters have to choose wisely as the available products are limited and can go away without warning, resulting in a lost investment. On the cost side, the average industrial manufacturer is spending $121M / year on IoT devices and services alone. However, by establishing an industry shared platform, these costs can be reduced drastically as collaboration between manufacturers, technology developers, and service providers drive wide-adoption. We’ve seen how open-source collaboration across parties in data storage has driven significant value across organization of all sizes with Hadoop. The Hadoop ecosystem continues to innovate on the open-source software platform to drive the cost of storage down as the volume of data increases at a significantly rapid rate.

Cool story bro…but what’s your use case?

Analyzing data without a specific goal is...challenging
Analyzing data without a specific goal is…challenging

While standardization is helpful and having access to trusted data whenever, wherever can be neat, manufacturing companies must be careful to understand why having access to real-time data is important to their business needs. Is there a significant problem that needs to be addressed, or is this a result of a tech exec driving innovation for the sake of innovating, or even worse, “keeping up with the Jones’”?

Without a reason, analyzing large volumes of data can be similar to searching for a polar bear in a driving snowstorm. It’s a futile effort. What is helpful, however, is understanding if your organization has a problem it needs to solve, identifying if Smart Manufacturing can help address the problem, and aligning across stakeholders to make it happen.

Houston, we have a problem

Most companies know a problem exists: revenue growth has stalled, market volatility is driving up costs, or operational inefficiencies are impacting production schedules, however what is difficult is articulating the need to address these issues.

To better understand how issues manifest themselves throughout the organization, it’s important to develop a list of the issues and create a priority matrix to better understand the implications. This will provide for a better understanding of how to invest time, money, and resources into the problems that have the most bang for the buck.

An industrial gas manufacturer was at a loss for the number of pumps they produced that had failed in the field. By identifying the failure types, along with the cost and safety impact, they prioritized the failures that were the most likely to be causing the damage, tracking it back to the process in the supply chain where the issue was most likely being introduced. Now it was up to them to figure out how to devise a fix and stay ahead of future issues.

Deploying Smart Manufacturing…smartly

Smart Manufacturing can start as a small, modular investment: installed in a specific process, in one plant, or across a region – the goal is to be able to share and consume data across systems and partners across the supply chain. By making targeted investments, manufacturers can realize quick wins that can be scaled for a larger and longer lasting impact.

The industrial gas manufacturer we discussed above, installed sensors along the pump production line and shared data with their material suppliers. As information was analyzed, the supplier noticed that metal being used was being processed outside of the bounds of what the material could handle, causing it to be weakened, and inevitably failing when used in stressful conditions. Without Smart Manufacturing techniques, this insight would be much more difficult to uncover and may have led unsatisfied customers to take their business elsewhere.

All aboard!

The developed priority matrix should be shared widely within the organization, from plant managers to organizational executives. By developing a cost-benefit analysis, manufacturing organizations can better communicate the value of having valued and trusted data to optimize the manufacturing process. Consider the following questions when developing the cost-benefit analysis:

  • What is the cost impact of the issue? (Are we losing customers? What is the cost of repair? How much time, money, and resources are expended to uncover and fix the problem?)
  • Which stakeholder is impacted the most? If you’re at risk of losing customer trust, act fast.
  • What is needed to improve the problem? (What data is necessary to better understand improvement opportunities?)
  • How much will the investment to gather data be?
  • How does the bottom line improve with improved & trusted data?

Taking as systematic approach in capturing and analyzing the right data and identifying the improvement opportunity is an organizations best bet in gaining support across stakeholders (internal and external) and starting along the Smart Manufacturing journey. It’ll be interesting to understand if the folks speaking at IW’s conference have identified specific use cases to address or if they’re searching for that elusive polar bear.