5 expert tips on introducing a smart factory system: Whitley

The majority of factories are shifting towards smart manufacturing, which uses connected devices, equipment, and production systems to collect and share data. Managers then use the data to make informed decisions, improve processes, and solve issues.

 The global smart manufacturing market was worth $249.56 billion in 2021, according to Fortune Business Insights. By 2029, the market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 13.1%, up to $658.41billion.

Smart manufacturing offers numerous benefits, including enhanced production efficiency, improved processes, and more informed asset maintenance. Here are five tips on setting up a smart factory system.    

1. Assess needs and goals

When you decide to implement a smart factory strategy, determining your goals and needs is critical. You should assess what you need and what you want to achieve so that you invest in the right areas.

Most smart manufacturing implementations occur in phases. You must identify your priorities to invest in the right technology and equipment.  

But a smart factory does not end with the right technology and equipment: you need to get your personnel on board. Advanced automation and technology can be intimidating to workers. They may fear that they lack the required knowledge and skills to work on the new processes and equipment.

The ideal way to approach this fear is to explain why you are shifting towards a smart factory. Explain to your staff not only how the company will benefit from the shift but also how they will benefit as workers. Let them be part of the process.

Assess what skills your staff has and what is needed to run a smart factory efficiently. Additional training is one of the best ways to cover the knowledge gap and instill confidence in your workers. More important, workers will fully support the shift when they know they have the required skill set and see firsthand how the new technology is helping them do their job better. 

2. Leverage on data 

Data collection, analysis, and reporting are the critical aspects of a smart factory. Several devices are connected to your central data system through wireless connections. These devices collect data on many factory areas, including your equipment and processes. 

The entire process, from data collection to analysis, has four levels:

  • Basic data availability: The factory is not smart at this level. Data is available but not easily collected and analyzed. If data collecting and analysis is done, it is time-consuming, leading to inefficiencies. 

  • Pro-active data analysis: Data is structured and accessible more easily. The data is organized and centrally available, with visualization assisting with processing. 

  • Active data: Data is analyzed, sometimes with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). 

  • Action-oriented data: At this level, managers can create solutions to issues using the analyzed data.

3. Identify the technologies you need

Smart factories rely heavily on various technologies related to the fourth industrial revolution – usually referred to as Industry 4.0. These technologies include:

  • Sensors: Sensors installed on various machines and devices collect data at specific stages of the manufacturing process and monitor processes. For example, they can monitor certain variables like temperatures, and initiate self-corrective mechanisms or notify staff. In material handling, sensors help control robots and machines, allowing the machine to either stop or change direction.

  • Internet of things (IoT): Several machines, processes, and devices are connected via internet data communications systems, to collect and share information with humans and other appliances.

  • Cloud computing: Storing and analyzing the data collected by sensors and IoT devices is done through cloud computing. It is more efficient than traditional onsite storage because you can store large amounts of data and quickly assess it.

  • 3D printing: 3D printing allows smart factories to provide agile, flexible, and distributed production capacity. Once a product is perfected and made to ensure high quality, smart factories use 3D printing to scale production and meet demand.

4. Be aware of cybersecurity

When multiple devices are connected over the internet, cyberattacks become a concern. According to a 2021 Data Breach Report by the Identity Theft Resource Center, there were 1,862 data breaches in 2021, a 68%rise from 2020.

Data security has become an essential aspect of a smart factory. Since the factory is digitized, managers must address cybersecurity. Managers must ensure that all valuable information is safe.  

Training staff on how to identify and deal with cyber threats is important. You must also keep your systems and software fully up to date. Cybercriminals are constantly devising new methods of stealing data and having updated systems ensures you are one step ahead.

Backing up your data, controlling access to information, and having personal, password-protected accounts for your staff also help deter attacks. Cybersecurity needs to be assessed before shifting to a smart factory because it creates an additional cost. 

5. Maintenance of the smart factory system

After successfully implementing a smart factory system, you need to upgrade and monitor it continuously. Once staff becomes familiar with the new technology and processes, expanding it to other factory areas becomes easier. 

All the equipment and devices need regular maintenance to ensure they work as required. A smart factory collects and analyzes valuable data that are helpful in scheduling preventive and predictive maintenance. Such maintenance helps avoid production shutdowns that could be costly to the factory. 

Monitoring a smart factory also allows managers to ensure the technology meets its goals. Any variance can be investigated and corrective action can be taken on time.

Making the transition to a smart factory system

Making the transition to a smart factory can be time-consuming and complex. The ideal way of making the shift is to divide the process into small stages and review progress after every step – then you can identify errors and take corrective action at an early stage.

The decision to move towards smart manufacturing should engage all company areas. This will ensure everyone understands the benefits and fully supports the decision. Ultimately, you will get to enjoy the benefits of a smart factory.

Eric Whitley serves as Director of Smart Manufacturing at L2L where he helps clients learn L2L's approach to corporate digital transformation. He has led the Total Productive Maintenance effort at Autoliv ASP and has served as adjunct faculty at Ohio State University in the Management Certification programs.