And rightly so. Implemented and managed appropriately, smart factories can reduce incidents of downtime, improving efficiency and cost-effective operations throughout. They can minimize waste, helping organizations to optimize their environmental footprints and keep costs to a minimum. They can extend the useful lifespans of physical assets, drive impressive process efficiencies, power the development of new products and much, much more.
What is a smart factory?
Smart factories are extraordinarily diverse and flexible, with different setups in place in factories of different sizes, scopes and sectors. However, the key feature they all share is the use of networking and automation technologies. These technologies capture, transmit, analyze and ultimately harness data from across the factory floor, using it connect, monitor and control almost any assets within the business.
So a smart factory might have implemented controls to automatically adjust the production line when a particular rate of production is reached. It might have installed sensors to automatically monitor the oil levels or temperature of particular components, and alert engineers as to when proactive maintenance needs to take place. It might be capturing information on production efficiency over time, in order to analyze trends in factory performance and ultimately to innovative and optimize.
So that’s what it looks like. But how does this approach help factory owners and managers to meet the major challenges they are facing today? To understand that, we need to explore what those challenges look like.
Modern factories: three core challenges
Distec recently held a seminar in partnership with Red Lion Controls where we spoke to a range of business leaders and managers who were running a wide variety of factories. We found that three key elements arose over and over again.
- Challenge 1: Time pressures. First, our attendees are under significant time pressures. They need their factories to run as time-efficiently as possible, not only in terms of getting each product through the production line as quickly as possible, but also in terms of business agility. They needed to be able to adjust product designs or volumes rapidly, and they needed to respond to changing market conditions rapidly as well.
- Challenge 2: Growing complexity. Second, our attendees cited growing complexity within both their factories themselves, and the wider industry. Within the factory, they were grappling with an ever-growing portfolio of tools and technologies, and ever-growing pools of data with which to inform their product designs and manufacturing processes. In theory, having all these resources at their fingertips is a huge advantage; in practice, it can be very difficult to manage them all effectively.
- Challenge 3: Merging and integration. Indeed, this takes us directly to the third key challenge cited. In such a complex environment, it is perhaps unsurprising that factory owners and managers are struggling to merge and integrate legacy and modern control systems within their factories. Whether it is making disparate systems take instructions from each other, or turning one dataset into a form that another machine can understand, there are numerous interoperability challenges for the typical modern factory to handle.
First, they can optimize performance and increase operational efficiency, thereby speeding up production and enabling products to get to market faster. Similarly, they can deliver greater business agility while reducing capital expense, in part because physical assets are maintained for longer through predictive maintenance.
Then there’s end-to-end connectedness to consider, which reduces unnecessary complexity and drives further business agility. Whether on the plant floor or in the front office, smart factory technology can enable employees to act on real-time data from virtually any equipment, anyway, and make operational decisions that have meaningful business impact. These decisions could range from the simple – relocating a physical asset – to the complex – reworking an entire production line to meet forecasted demand.
From an integration and interoperability perspective, smart factory technology can optimize capital investment by leveraging existing infrastructure to integrate new intelligent devices, and how you can connect existing equipment to new assets with ease. In other words, smart factory technology can enable the seamless integration of modern and legacy equipment – a key challenge for our seminar attendees.
Smart factories are ushering in an exciting new era of automation and intelligence to manufacturing and industrial settings. Relatively simple technology is having a huge impact in terms of smoothing complex processes, capturing and harnessing valuable data, and enabling modern and legacy systems to work together, better.
Noel Sheppard is director of Distec, a technology solutions provider to industries including manufacturing.