What is a Factory Operating System and Why Is It Important?

Operating systems came after the emergence of computers to create a better UI/UX, and to make computers more approachable and useful. Now, factory operating systems are offering similar advantages to manufacturing.

When most people hear the term “operating system,” they think of Microsoft Windows, iOS or a Linux OS. Although users pretty much take them for granted now, operating systems came after the introduction of computers to create a better user interface (UI) and user experience (UX), and to make computers more approachable and useful. Now, factory operating systems are offering similar advantages to manufacturing. 

What a Factory Operating System Is – and Isn’t 

Another way to describe a factory operating system is to tell you what it’s not: It isn’t an enterprise resource planning (ERP) or manufacturing execution system (MES). Traditional, monolithic software locks operations into specific designs and processes – a factory can actually begin to be ruled by rigid software. These types of solutions also tend to build processes with more focus on top-line and bottom-line finances rather than on agility and innovation that are so necessary in today’s competitive climate.  

On the other hand, factory operating systems are manufacturing software platforms designed to give people, materials, and processes a way to share information, collaborate, and meet customer expectations quickly and efficiently. These systems aren’t solely about producing – they give manufacturing operations the ability to respond to design updates, changing demands, and create powerful manufacturing workflows.

There are few true factory operating systems, such as ion Execute, available in a world filled with ERPs and MESs. Some businesses have resorted to stitching systems together in an attempt to have the agility and collaboration their teams need. Unfortunately, these solutions aren’t as strong in UI/UX, connectivity, and features compared to a system built for greater manufacturing flexibility and opportunities for innovation. 

Make Incremental Progress toward a Fully Digital Operation 

Scalability is a key advantage of factory operating systems. Factory operating systems allow you to make upgrades to individual processes with advanced technology, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning (ML), or other forms of artificial intelligence (AI), rather than attempting to upgrade all processes at once. 

You shouldn’t view starting small as a disadvantage – it's actually preferable. Manufacturers who view new technology as a silver bullet and attempt to revamp their entire operation with one project are more than likely setting themselves up for failure. And, when processes don’t meet expectations, they’re often abandoned – along with any new opportunities the project could have created. 

In advanced manufacturing, processes can be very different and require different technologies to optimize them. For example, composites manufacturing processes are distinct from additive manufacturing or 3D printing. While a laser bond inspection (LBI) process used for composites might not appear to be relevant to parts produced by additive manufacturing, the inspection process may be the same. This is where factory operating systems give companies the flexibility they need while allowing modular component reuse.  

Bringing in the right tools for the job to achieve focused, incremental improvement is the smarter approach. Up to 60% of ERP projects will fail when faced with one or more extended implementation evolutions, so improving by 10% every month or quarter is better than waiting for a solution that improves all use cases and product lines. Moreover, those small wins will compound and help you advance your digital strategy. 

In-Demand Functionality and Skills 

It’s crucial for manufacturers who want to stay competitive to realize that digital transformation is far from a passing fad. Its potential to increase efficiency, productivity, and profitability will continue to drive adoption. However, digital transformation is still in its early stages and manufacturers are just beginning to explore the potential of connected IoT systems and AI. Factory operating systems are perfect for this experimentation and innovation, but they also support an additional, vital ingredient to manufacturing success: empowered employees. 

With a purpose-built factory operating system, operators can use tablets and mobile devices to capture information from the manufacturing floor and stay informed of design changes or other factors that could impact product quality or productivity. It also gives them the ability to provide feedback and share their insights with peers and leadership about how to make better products and operate as a lean organization. 

As factories advance their digital transformations, they will need to look for people with analytical skillsets, such as programmatic thinking and familiarity with Python or JavaScript that can help them connect technology, processes, and people. Employees that may not have software development skills but are talented communicators and able to map out the flow of information -– from design and analysis to production, quality inspections, and operation – will also be in demand, and will find a factory operating system is the perfect tool to help them do their jobs. 

Unlock Potential

Manufacturers are operating differently than they did decades ago, recognizing that their ability to handle changes, new customer requests, design changes, and updates with agility are the things that will keep them competitive. 

Today’s factories are more about flexibility and innovation – some operations are even tracking innovation KPIs. A factory operating system supports the creativity and streamlined processes necessary to unlock potential and support automated, digitally transformed market leaders, both current and future.