Smart manufacturing: What if they threw a revolution and nobody came?

Let’s face it: The majority of manufacturing organizations just isn’t realizing the promises of “smart manufacturing.” We aren’t seeing the improved productivity, optimized production, higher levels of safety, enhanced security, accelerated decision-making, reduced regulatory effort or faster market response times that current technology enables.

By Patrick Weber June 9, 2016

Let’s face it: The promises of “smart manufacturing” just aren’t being realized by the majority of manufacturing organizations. For the most part, we aren’t seeing the improved productivity, optimized production, higher levels of safety, enhanced security, accelerated decision-making, reduced regulatory effort or faster market response times that current technology enables. 

The benefits of smart manufacturing are not phantasms—they are very real. Many large manufacturers in automotive, food and beverage, consumer goods, aerospace and other industry sectors can testify to their success from implementing these techniques. But a vast majority of enterprises are small to midsized businesses (SMB) and they perceive significant barriers to applying new technologies that some of their larger contemporaries have resources to overcome.

It isn’t unusual to find an organization with less than 100 employees that has no formal information technology (IT) group. The application support they require is provided by third parties and knowledgeable internal staff. You’ll hear things like “Dave is our IT department” or “Mike is just a whiz with Excel.” These organizations are able to function successfully with IT point solutions, using applications like spreadsheets and personal databases to integrate point solutions into an end-to-end system. Even though it is inefficient, this unfettered pragmatism works well enough to enable them to compete in the marketplace.

Just as with IT, many smaller manufacturers also have no formal automation group. They rely on their machine builders and system integrators to provide PLC/PAC programming, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems and other operational technology. You won’t usually find things like ISA88, PLCOpen, or B2MML specified by these companies. Again, pragmatism is the key driver in the requirements presented to third-party solution providers. If you ask them what standards they demand in the systems in which they invest, the response is typically, “Whatever the integrator decides is necessary.” Why would system integrators adopt ISA/IEC/ISO  automation standards if their clients aren’t insisting they be used?

So here’s the situation in which most manufacturers (more than 95 percent of all manufacturers are SMBs) find themselves: IT investments that were not strategically managed and legacy automation systems that were built to no consistent standards. (SMBs shouldn’t get too distressed by this statement—many of your larger competitors are in the same boat in spite of having full-fledged IT and automation departments). Now read the stories of smart manufacturing through the eyes of an engineer or manager in one of these companies. Connected enterprise? IT/OT Convergence? Service-oriented architecture? Industrial Internet of Things? None of these seem applicable to their day-to-day operations. Is it any wonder the usual response is, “You can’t get there from here”?

SMBs have one great advantage over larger manufacturers: they can be extremely agile. What may at first be perceived as a barrier may in fact turn into a competitive advantage—with the proper direction. Larger companies have a great deal more inertia than smaller ones: more machines, more legacy and more politics. SMBs can quickly navigate around impediments if the benefits justify the effort. What’s missing from the big picture, though, is a discussion of the “on ramp” for SMBs—how do they engage with the technologies that enable smart manufacturing—given their current state, competitive position and available resources?

Smart-manufacturing initiatives have the support of governments worldwide, are discussed by multiple industry organizations and are finding their way into the curricula of universities globally. But unless small- to midsized manufacturers figure out how to join the party, there will be a lot of leftover pizza.

—Patrick Weber is a MESA International Technical and Education Committee member and MESA-recognized practitioner. This article originally appeared on MESA’s blog. MESA is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Erin Dunne, production coordinator, CFE Media,

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