What is a Smart Factory?

Historically, manufacturers have operated in silos. Today’s smart factory, however, changes all of that.

Historically, manufacturers have operated in silos. This was largely due to technological or operational limitations. For example, equipment on the floor with proprietary technology may not have provided an interface to connect with other systems. Also, controls for those machines are managed by different employees than information technology (IT), so a natural barrier formed. Since supply chain data isn’t always readily available for production, those teams often moved forward without real-time information. Today’s smart factory, however, changes all of that.

The Latest Industrial Revolution

The smart factory is the goal of the Industry 4.0 revolution. Just as disruptions in the past, such as new sources of power and mass production, fundamentally changed manufacturing, Industry 4.0 is set to transform operations in far-reaching ways.

In the smart factory, advanced technologies collect and use data to automate and optimize processes. Additionally, real-time data insights are readily accessible to the people who need them to make timely, informed decisions. The ultimate objective on the way to achieving the smart factory vision is to optimize each process and connect each facet of the operation, leveraging technologies including:

Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)

IIoT technology allows operations to connect computerized numerical control (CNC) machines with network systems, sensors, devices and processes. IIoT also enables machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and fuels big data analysis.

IIoT requires a reliable network to support data communication, whether Bluetooth, RFID or Wi-Fi at short range or Narrowband IoT radio technology, low-power wide-area (LPWA) connectivity, low-power long-range wide-area networking (LoRaWAN), or Sigfox. With increased availability for connectivity, like 5G, this is now more possible than ever.

Cloud Computing

A connected environment generates much more data than legacy manufacturing operations. Storing and analyzing that data on-site would require costly infrastructure and IT resources to manage it – and even more investment when it’s time to scale. A more practical solution is to leverage cloud computing for smart factory data. Manufacturers can also find additional benefits to using the cloud, including access to new cloud services, significant cost savings, and a platform for innovation.

Edge Computing

Cloud computing can create latency (and high data transfer costs) that is unacceptable for some smart factory operations. Edge computing, which enables processing data at the source, ensures mission-critical operations can occur reliably and in real time. Edge computing puts the power of developing on the cloud at the device level, giving your existing machines and machine programmers new powers to connect the factory.

Artificial Intelligence

AI, including machine learning (ML), optical character recognition (OCR), and natural language processing (NLP), can streamline smart factory processes, such as quality control/quality assurance, warehouse management, and shipping and receiving.  

Robot Automation

AI, big data analytics, and edge computing along with other technologies can enable robot automation in the smart factory. Robot automation can power autonomous vehicles, accomplish repetitive tasks on a production line, or even power 3D printing and rapid prototyping.

The Smart Factory: a View From Above

The intricacies and complexities of the smart factory require a modern platform to manage it. Software designed for the smart factory must have the ability to coordinate production with other activities in the plant, including purchasing, supply chain, and sales, and intelligently respond to changes. Smart factories also require a system that tracks projects from design to production, recording any changes from original plans related to issues such as lack of parts availability or new vendor partnerships. This might take the form of a digital thread framework, which flows data from design to manufacturing and even into operations to provide a holistic story of every part in a complex assembly for better quality and long-term sustaining for a product. The result is better customer experience, lowered operations cost, and continuous improvement of engineering and manufacturing processes

As manufacturers advance toward their smart factory goals, it’s also critical for the software orchestrating operations to facilitate team collaboration. With the right solution, teams can align and take into account priorities, objectives, and schedules, working just as smoothly as the automation on the line.

Software designed for the smart factory should also help the business get the greatest value from the data it’s generating. Analyzing data can help managers see down the road to spot potential bottlenecks or equipment failures and give them enough time to intervene and correct problems. Also, because everyone in the organization doesn’t require the same data insights to do their jobs well, the software should allow teams to customize dashboards to display the most vital information for their employees while still providing leadership with an overview of all operations.

Benefits of the Smart Factory

Overall, smart factory operations will improve productivity and efficiency when compared to legacy manufacturing processes. Smart factories are also better positioned to provide enhanced customer service, accommodate customization requests, and beat their competitors to market with new products.

The list of smart factory benefits can actually be as diverse business goals among different manufacturers. With the right technology, manufacturers have the ability to monitor their operations, set new goals and achieve them through process optimization. There’s no limit to what a reimagined, connected environment has the potential to achieve.