Smart manufacturing has been making a lot of noise lately, mostly because businesses are realizing how automation can improve productivity. Also known as the “New Industrial Revolution,” this may indeed drastically shift the entire world of manufacturing.
So, what is smart manufacturing?
According to Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition, “smart manufacturing” is defined as “integrating network-based data and information that comprises the real-time understanding, reasoning, planning, and management of all aspects of a manufacturing and supply chain enterprise.”
Some refer to smart manufacturing as the digitization of various processes in factories, using robots, 3D printing, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and machine learning.
A company that has moved forward to smart manufacturing uses intelligent machines, networks, and systems to manage different processes in its operations. “Smart manufacturing” is basically a term highlighting the different technologies used to make the processes more efficient.
However, as of 2014, 87% of U.S. companies did not use smart manufacturing, despite reports of increased efficiency, lower product defects, and customer satisfaction gains. Although adopters of advanced industrial automation can expect initial investments to affect profitability during the first few years, this is just a hurdle to profitable growth.
Aside from the cost factor, these companies may be having reservations because the new standards are yet to be implemented. There are existing frameworks and standardization initiatives in countries like the U.S., China, and Germany, but they may not be enough to sell smart manufacturing.
But if the industry, in this fast-paced, tech-driven age, will inevitably move toward next-generation robots, IIoT, and artificial intelligence, why wait for new standards to be imposed? Smart manufacturing is in a continuous development phase, so why not reap the following benefits now?
Improved productivity with robots
After reviewing their processes and adding automation, factories can become more efficient. Resource management is more manageable: Energy, time, materials, and manpower are regulated towards creating better products with much less resources. Product consistency is easily achieved, which is not only important but critical in manufacturing.
The Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition estimates that advanced manufacturing can deliver 10x improvement in time to market in some industries, 40% reduction in cycle times, 10% improvement in overall operating efficiency, 25% reduction in water usage, and 25% improvement in energy efficiency. All of these result to great improvements in overall productivity.
Changying Precision Technology Co., which produces mobile phones with a factory in Dongguan, China, is a drastic example of how robots are utilized to increase productivity. The Chinese factory reduced its 650-employee factory workforce to just 60 people – a huge 90% reduction – and used robots to get the tasks done. This resulted to increased production of up to 250%.
Adidas is another company that is shifting to robot factories. It is developing a “Speedfactory” model, in which most of the processes in its factories would be automated.
Real-time system assessment
The entire manufacturing process can be broken down in its different phases for a more in-depth monitoring and evaluation of each step and procedure. Any challenges, possible weaknesses, and points of improvements can be easily identified and resolved much quicker. Communication can be elevated with the help of real-time monitoring, paving way to more efficient resolutions.
One example is how the Hershey Co. used sensors to sense candy temperature to get a precise final candy weight. The candy maker is able to do this with the help of cloud-based machine learning in Microsoft Azure.
Hershey’s production team was able to use sensors to better understand its processes and products. It can identify certain conditions such as specific temperatures to avoid in order to optimize production. Thanks to machine learning, the more the team uses this system to predict the net weight of its candies, the better it will be at it.
Venturing into smart manufacturing is an investment with potentially great returns. Granted, new pieces of equipment and their maintenance can be expensive, but increased revenue and reduced costs will be seen in the long run.
Businesses implementing smart manufacturing may slowly integrate robots in their production lines through smaller equipment purchases, so costs are not too high too suddenly.
In Hershey’s use of sensors, more precisely weighing each item of candy might not seem like a big goal to some, but with the amount of candy produced, this adds up to a lot.
This small detail allowed the company to reduce the extra weight it’s putting in each product to be able to meet the minimum promised weight indicated in packaging. This resulted to almost $500,000 savings in each 14,000-gallon batch.
Efficient use of resources in the production aims to eliminate waste, including manpower and even the usage of machines. IIoT can improve communications among operators, engineers, and managers by displaying results even during production.
Real-time system assessment accomplishes the first critical steps to keep operations afloat. These are all contributing factors toward turning the business to sustainability, and eventually, consistent business growth.
Some people mistakenly have the impression that robots and AI will take away jobs from humans. This is highly inaccurate. Although industrial automation will take over some tasks, humans will still be needed to manage and work around these robots. A move to smart manufacturing will create jobs in the upper rungs of the ladder.
Having smart manufacturing tools and processes in place opens opportunities for the human workforce to focus on business development, to come up with innovations, and to think creatively.
While robots may take away the repetitive tasks from human hands, they demand more highly skilled sustainable jobs to be created.
Germany gives a great example in how using more robots does not equate to fewer human jobs. German manufacturing companies deploy three times more robots than the U.S. but employ more people in comparison with the U.S.
Among the benefits of smart manufacturing is an estimated 25% reduction in safety incidents. Less human intervention, especially in physically demanding manufacturing processes, should result in improved worker safety. Smart manufacturing systems may also help improve workplace security which also translates to improved overall safety in the workplace.
As manufacturers heavily rely on the loyalty of customers, they must ensure their satisfaction first. What customers are looking for is consistent and great-quality products, easily achievable through automation of processes. Happy customers are loyal customers, and loyal customers make manufacturers happy in return.
Though the standardization of smart manufacturing is currently evolving and developing, take a step forward and enjoy the benefits today!
About the Author:
Rana Tarakji is a contributor at PDF Electric & Supply, an automation supplier whose corporate office is in Cary, N.C.