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Assisting Small and Medium-Sized Manufacturers with Industry 4.0/Smart Manufacturing Technology Adoption

Gregory Harris
By Gregory A. Harris, PhD, PE Auburn University, SME Member Since 2017

INDUSTRY 4.0/smart manufacturing (I-4.0) promises to improve the competitiveness and profitability of manufacturers, or at least that is the mantra of vendors, consultants and the media. And listening to some, you might think that manufacturing is at a critical tipping point of adoption of the underlying technologies. However, research indicates that while large companies, with their engineering staffs and financial resources, are making good progress toward this digitalized manufacturing environment, small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) are not. SMMs, which make up 80 to 90 percent of the industrial base in the U.S., tend to operate with leaner resources and staffing with a singular focus on meeting the parts demand of their customers. They simply do not have the time, funding or extra personnel to apply to a project to investigate and implement the technologies necessary to become a digital supply partner. While customers of the SMMs are moving toward digitalization, recent research indicates that SMMs are quite far behind. One study of 150+ SMMs found that approximately 24 percent were still using fax machines to transfer technical data, quite a ways from I-4.0 capabilities.


A Hurco turning center. (All images provided by ICAMS)

Digitally enabled and connected operations are the future for manufacturing. The combination of production with data, information, computing capabilities and communications technology merges customer data with machine data, facilitates communication between machines and allows for autonomous management of production in a flexible, efficient and resource-saving approach. The Interdisciplinary Center for Advanced Manufacturing Systems (ICAMS) at Auburn University, Auburn, Ala., is an I-4.0 capable factory with the purpose to advance technology adoption by SMMs. To facilitate this mission, we have assembled the capabilities that an SMM might have, such as five- and three-axis milling, turning centers, waterjet, robotics, conventional welding and friction-stir welding. We have networked the equipment to create the ability to collect real-time data from operations for data analytics, machine learning/artificial intelligence applications and operations management, creating a more profitable and competitive enterprise. The journey we have gone through to create this future manufacturing environment is being documented in a business case that will be a benefit to SMMs as they start their own journey to digitalization. A cost/benefits focused business case that SMMs can relate to is a key factor in driving adoption.

A Haas 750SS five-axis milling machine.

There are six initiatives designed to accomplish the ICAMS mission: demonstration, outreach, training, education, research and promotion. All of these are achievable only through the real factory developed with the aforementioned capabilities. Demonstration is focused on showcasing the I-4.0 technologies presented to improve knowledge and awareness of the benefits of digitalization. ICAMS’ researchers, faculty and students execute the outreach and training activities by working with manufacturers to provide tailored equipment and system training, working on company-defined projects, hosting summer camps, providing internships, producing prototypes and low-rate production runs, and hosting manufacturing competitions like Project MFG ( We work with entrepreneurs to develop manufacturing plans for both new and reengineered products. With the variety of machining capabilities at ICAMS, we can work with local companies to “try out” ideas and manufacturing options as an alternative to stopping production on their own equipment to experiment.

Education is a significant part of the ICAMS mission as we want to produce engineers with hands-on experience to create a value-added asset to industry on day one. Our students gain understanding of factory operations and advanced manufacturing technologies and take that knowledge and experience into the workforce. Industry benefits by adding a qualified engineer on their team and having an advanced technology advocate capable of steering their journey to a digital and connected enterprise.

A DMG Mori DMU 50 five-axis milling machine.

Research is key to advancing the capabilities of industry to take advantage of digitalization and an opportunity to enhance the experience of our students. One of the first research efforts we initiated is an annual survey of technology adoption and workforce skills in industry. This survey will be the first longitudinal study (five years) of tech adoption by SMMs, and we expect to identify opportunities to improve adoption rates through the research and training that will result from the study findings. Other research streams include cybersecurity in manufacturing systems; big data and analysis; automation and robotics; agile and distributed manufacturing systems; sensors and data collection; and machining and manufacturing optimization.

Promotion is the final component of the ICAMS mission. Promotion of manufacturing as a career from middle school through a doctorate degree is a priority. Manufacturing today is nothing like what it was when I started my career at Texas Instruments as a floor support industrial engineer (and that was a great environment!). Attracting a new generation of manufacturing professionals, in technician and engineer positions, is critical to U.S. manufacturing competitiveness in the future.

Advanced manufacturing training with local industry is a key part of implementing I-4.0.

ICAMS is a public-private partnership with the DoD Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment office (Washington, D.C.), the City of Auburn Industrial Development Board, the Alabama Community College System (Montgomery, Ala.), Auburn University and industry partners such as Oshkosh Corp. (Oshkosh, Wis.).

If you ever find yourself down here in Auburn (less than two hours from Atlanta), let us know. We would be happy for you to come by and see this unique and exciting enterprise. For more information, contact us at

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