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Smart Manufacturing: Think Big, Start Small

Christine Longroy
By Christine Longroy Automotive Industry Manager, SME

Smart manufacturing is about making the best decisions in the shortest time possible based on the most accurate real-time data—whether those decisions are made by people, machines or cyber-physical systems. This is the foundation for being flexible, effective, responsive, and competitive. A smart manufacturing initiative does not need to be a huge project. It may be better to start small, but with the right approach and priorities.

According to a new survey from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG; Troy, MI), a global management consultancy and leader in smart manufacturing initiatives, most US companies are in very early stages of implementing smart technologies. Over 50% of companies are experimenting, including testing pilot programs and collecting data; however, they’re not executing against an integrated vision. Just 3% of companies are executing at an integrated vision and are ready for large-scale deployment; 40% of companies are not participating at all.

“Industry 4.0 should not start with technologies; it’s about understanding your operations, pain points, opportunities and biggest cost buckets, and then working from the pain points to apply technologies to design a solution,” said Jonathan Van Wyck, partner and managing director at BCG. “Even though most companies are in the early stages of truly scaling Industry 4.0, we’re seeing significant productivity gains. These gains are driven not only by reducing the manual intensity of your manufacturing processes, i.e., using advanced automation and smart machines, but also by reducing waste such as cycle time loss or scrap using augmented reality, machine vision or predictive analytics, for example.”

Listen to Your Equipment

To begin the journey, manufacturers must study and model industrial processes to save money, energy and materials. That’s where data come in. Manufacturers must collect and analyze data within the four walls of a plant or between multiple plants, then look at the big problems, evaluate where information and data can help solve those problems, and find the people who can access that data.

“The data are out there. Collecting it may look like an insurmountable problem to one person, but to another, this may be a fairly simple process,” said Rachel Lecrone, director of manufacturing IT systems and industrial controls for Cummins Inc. (Pittsburgh). “It’s all about connecting the people who know how to get the data to the people with pain points that need to be solved.”

Close Collaboration Required

To make this work, operations departments must closely collaborate with IT departments. Sensors and wireless technologies can capture data at all stages of a product’s life. These range from material properties and the temperatures and vibrations of equipment to the logistics of supply chains and customer details. Truck engines beam back data on speed, fuel consumption and oil temperature to manufacturers and fleet operators. Optical scanners spot defects in printed circuit boards.

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Joel Neidig, engineer and lead IT developer at Indiana Technology and Manufacturing Companies (ITAMCO; Plymouth, IN), a gear shop that delivers precision-machined components to global OEMs, said that companies should move away from reactionary measures and start planning.

“We’re seeing cost reductions through more efficiencies because [the process is] more visible now and we can measure it,” said Neidig. “With enough data, manufacturers can schedule better. By catching maintenance problems that may be coming down the pipeline, you can prepare for a solution in a nonreactive, more preventative way.”
Manufacturers should start monitoring some of their most expensive and vital equipment and scale-up from there. Whatever you do, it’s important to buy the ticket and start the journey. In the digital era we live in, there’s no other option.

To learn more about how to begin incorporating smart technologies into your factory floor, visit sme.org/smartmfg to download SME’s new smart manufacturing technical paper.

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