How to build a smart factory strategy

If companies want to reach overall smart manufacturing, they’re going to need a smart factory strategy.

By Trent Maw April 15, 2022
Courtesy: Brett Sayles

Smart manufacturing is the future of the entire industry. If companies want to reach that future without straying off the path or ending up somewhere else entirely, they’re going to need a map — a smart factory strategy.

But what is this strategy supposed to look like? Is there one perfect way every manufacturer should do things, or do they need to personalize each step to meet their plant’s needs? How are companies supposed to make a roadmap into the future, anyway?

Does someone really need a smart factory strategy?

There’s a time and place for figuring things out as one goes along, and a smart factory initiative is not it. That’s because guesswork, assumptions and improvisation are like putting a bandage over a gaping wound: They may look like a solution at first glance, but they can’t get someone to the root of real manufacturing issues. Worse yet, people will miss out on some of the most important benefits of smart manufacturing overall.

For this reason, it’s important to resist the temptation to jump in with both feet, potentially causing over-investment without ROI. Instead, take the implementation process one step at a time.

First things first: People need to find out what they’re actually implementing.

smart factory runs on many of the same ideals that guide traditional plants, but the difference is that those ideals are optimized and empowered by data, automation, artificial intelligence and more. It doesn’t happen overnight; the process is like assembling a puzzle — but instead of tiny pieces, companies are putting manufacturing technology together to create the smart factory vision.

A similar but not synonymous term is “smart manufacturing,” which refers to digitized operations and the technologies guiding them. Put simply, smart manufacturing is the approach, and a smart factory is a plant utilizing that approach.

When it comes to the strategy, smart manufacturing is the foundation. It should help with early steps in the implementation process, including:

  • Identifying and setting goals: To create a smart factory that feels like someone’s specific factory, they’ll need to spend some time brainstorming goals. What do they want their future to look like? Which manufacturing challenges, production issues, supply chain inefficiencies or other frustrations do they hope to overcome?

  • Understanding strengths and weaknesses: Digital transformation doesn’t mean trashing all the progress someone has made thus far. Instead, identify strengths and build the smart factory strategy around them. It’s also important to note where weaknesses are to know how to target them when it comes time to choose smart factory technology.

  • Knowing what to expect: Smart manufacturing should be optimistic yet realistic. Understand what this approach has to offer so people can determine what’s really in the realm of possibility (like optimized processes) and what’s probably never going to happen (like perfection).

Once someone has the basics down, it’s time to start building their own smart factory strategy. To do that, they’ll need to take three steps — and those steps involve technology, people and evolution.

Step #1: Get savvy about smart factory technologies

When people hear about digitized, advanced manufacturing, they may imagine a factory that’s “all tech, all the time.” However, that’s not the case. In fact, that approach to a smart manufacturing initiative can cause a whole lot of trouble.

The reality is no technology is necessary unless it helps solve a specific problem. If there’s no opportunity for a stronger process, a boost in efficiency or an increase in ROI, tech deployment is just performative. That’s not smart manufacturing — it’s a wasteful habit dressed up and pretending to be smart manufacturing.

When someone approaches smart factory technology as a specific solution to specific problems, they’ll see better results. Here are a few ways to build that into a smart factory strategy:

Think about Big Data

Smart manufacturing technology is capable of capturing data quickly and efficiently, which means there will be a lot of it — and that’s where “Big Data” comes into play.

Used correctly, data can help a manufacturer achieve operational excellence; however, used incorrectly, data can quickly get out of hand and eat up time in capture, storage and retrieval while providing precious few insights.

The key is to be ready for big data when it shows up on the horizon. Create a smart factory strategy that focuses on the effective utilization and analysis of asset, operational and process data rather than just hoarding it like a dragon hoards gold. This requires two things:

  • Understanding the type, amount and accuracy of the data someone will have access to, which will far exceed what they could capture with traditional manufacturing techniques (all thanks to smart sensors, data analytics, machine learning and other digital manufacturing tools).

  • Compiling this data from multiple sources across the factory to create one cohesive, easily accessible view of the truth.

Put existing tech to good use

A smart factory solution doesn’t always require brand-new technology. Instead, it might guide someone in the effective utilization of existing tools — such as mobile devices. By empowering people on the factory floor to capture data without interrupting their task or manufacturing process, companies can take advantage of familiar technology to get a better, more complete view of what’s actually happening in their manufacturing plant.

Don’t get complacent about security

When the whole plant uses automation and artificial intelligence (AI) casually, it’s easy to start looking at it like any other tool. The truth is smart factory technology, for all its strengths, can still be vulnerable to security issues like unrestricted access or data theft. It’s up to companies to outsmart those digital dangers — so think ahead and build security processes and tools into the smart factory strategy.

Step #2: Involve the plant’s people in the smart factory vision

Although technology is a key part of any smart factory, it can’t function all alone. Data from sensors or integrated systems is only as good as its ability to trigger the appropriate action — like changing a process, bringing materials, choosing which problem to focus on and more. Since these are human tasks, it makes sense that smart manufacturing needs to empower people, not replace them.

To do this, it is necessary to include a few key approaches in the smart factory strategy:

  • Create value for workers: People are the innovators, problem-solvers and creative thinkers of the factory. Each smart factory solution should be designed to create real value for workers, whether in the form of accessible data, meaningful insights, better tools or smoother processes.

  • Make tools practical: Employees need to be comfortable with smart manufacturing technology. If their systems and tools are too difficult to use, people won’t actually use them — and that, of course, defeats the purpose. Make sure the smart factory strategy emphasizes intuitive, user-friendly approaches that fit the needs and expectations of the modern worker.

  • Bring people together: Like the supply chain itself, a factory is full of moving parts. When those “parts” are people, it’s especially important to make sure they’re all working together. For example, a smart factory strategy should be designed to keep IT and operations teams on the same page, helping operations communicate their needs and allowing IT to identify the specific tech solutions that can help without introducing new obstacles.

Step #3: Build evolution into smart factory strategies

The final, and perhaps most important, part of a smart factory strategy is evolution. The last thing someone wants to do is create a roadmap that locks them into a certain approach or discourages further innovation. Instead, keep in mind that a smart factory should be in a constant state of growth. It’s a journey, not a destination.

Here are a few ways to build evolution into the DNA of a smart factory strategy:

  • Leave space for creativity: Although tools like automation make it easy to standardize each production process, that doesn’t mean people have to get stuck in a rut. People should allow themselves and their teams to experiment with smart manufacturing and potentially find even better ways to do things (which can give them a significant competitive advantage).

  • Learn from yourself: If someone happens to make a big breakthrough in one department or factory location, don’t let it go to waste. Build the smart factory approach with an eye toward sharing information across the organization and creating a new best practice.

  • Evolve organically: As people get more comfortable with smart factory technology, they’ll find that evolution doesn’t have to be a constant focus. Instead, people should be able to use new insights to pivot, improving processes and eliminating inefficiencies naturally.

The smart factory foundation necessary

To bring all three steps together and create a solid smart factory strategy, there are a few things to know:

  • Where to start.

  • Which goals to pursue.

  • Which tech tools to use.

  • In which direction one should evolve.

-This originally appeared on L2L’s website. L2L is a CFE Media content partner.

Author Bio: Trent Maw, senior director of marketing, L2L (Leading2Lean)