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From factory floor to shop floor – four ways to be a smart manufacturer

“There are three ways to be smart in manufacturing,” says Michael Yost, president of manufacturing association MESA International. Three, it seems, is the magic number when it comes to categorising smartness in manufacturing.

“When we talk about the digital transformation of industry, we talk about three transformations,” comments Greg Kinsey, vice president at Hitachi Vantara, speaking separately, in an unrelated dialogue about digitising manufacturing operations.

But their definitions are not the same; they agree on two, and diverge on two. The logic is plain in each case, however, and the pair would likely settle on a final four, which broadly reflect the industrial change strategies set out variously in Europe, under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 scheme, Germany’s Industrie 4.0 initiative, and France’s parallel Alliance du Futur programme.

The size of the prize also means each definition of smart manufacturing commands attention, no matter how they are cut. Yost’s favourite study is by Cisco, from 2013, which promises to reveal the secrets of capturing a share of the $14.4 trillion ‘internet of everything’. As much as 27 per cent of the total value will come just from manufacturing, it finds. “Either way, we should be able to find some gold in those hills,” says Yost.

But where? A brief review of all four definitions, as provided in passing by Yost and Kinsey, is helpful as a starting point for any conversation about smart manufacturing, and provides a map of them thar hills.

So, here goes…

Smart operations

The classical (and truest?) interpretation of smart manufacturing is linked to the digitisation of industrial operations. The point is to have manufacturing processes, on the factory floor, which are informed by data, and sparking with insight.

“They should be intelligent, data-driven, action-oriented, and responsive,” says Yost.

Kinsey says the same. “It is about how you digitise and run your manufacturing operations – to improve productivity, quality, efficiency, and flexibility” For Kinsey, the key is in the digitisation of manufacturing processes – not just the connecting up with IoT-style sensors, but the lighting up with advanced analytics, and slicker supporting processes.

Incidentally, smart operations represents the heartland for both MESA International, representing both customers and providers and customers of ‘manufacturing enterprise solutions’, and Hitachi Vantara, the Japanese firm’s cloud storage and industrial transformation business.

Smart enterprise

This is Yost’s entry, and refers to the continued digitisation of IT operations, as opposed to operational technology (OT) functions, as described above. “It means you are connected across your value chains, and more responsive to your markets,” he says.

The same horizontal technologies apply, including analytical techniques like artificial intelligence and machine learning, to detect fraud in the supply chain, suggests Yost, or to process orders rapidly through customer touch-points and front-office systems

“It is about how companies work as companies, and not necessarily how digotal relates to the specifics of manufacturing operations.”

Smart products

The third definition of smart manufacturing describes the final product, as it comes off the production line. “Tennis rackets have smart sensors in; beds have sensors in,” notes Yost. They are designed to improve technique in the first instance, and sleep, generally, in the second.

Kinsey makes the point smart products replicate some of the functionality of smart manufacturing operations, with predictive maintenance a feature of both connected consumer and enterprise goods. “It is about how you transform your product, by making it smart and connected, whether that’s a car or refrigerator,” he says.

Smart services

Kinsey also highlights the role of services in smart manufacturing, linked to the product leaving the shop floor. “The business model is changing – to the point you might even give your product away for free,” he says.

Instead, manufacturers are offering per-usage and per-event subscriptions, which also take in maintenance.

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