What does super-smart manufacturing mean for the industry?


Manufacturing is in a state of flux.

With the fourth industrial revolution waiting in the wings, production lines are about to be transformed beyond recognition. Machine learning may still be in its infancy, but leaders eager to elevate the connectivity and orchestration of manufacturing processes across the value chain are starting to uncover the potential that exists in smart technology.

Where specialist knowledge used to be critical in the production of hardware, vast developments in digital technology are paving the way for “smart manufacturing,” an umbrella term the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), uses to describe “fully-integrated, collaborative manufacturing systems that respond in real time to meet changing demands and conditions in the factory, in the supply network, and in customer needs.”

In this brave new world, real-time data, smart devices and cutting-edge cognitive computing are already proving pivotal in solving traditional industry challenges and streamlining operations to create advantaged value. But what can we expect from the factory of the future, and what does super-smart manufacturing mean for the industry as a whole?

Commoditisation of hardware

According to research from Harvard Business School, the commoditisation of machinery is happening at an unprecedented pace. Today, manufacturers are able to duplicate the technology used to create cutting-edge products while saving costs and time in the process, and it’s all thanks to the development of smart machinery.

Once upon a time, the tools used in manufacturing hinged on experts and the “tacit knowledge” they had accumulated from years’ worth of industry experience. Today, production tools being developed already have this knowledge embedded into their systems, allowing specialist know-how to be recreated effortlessly across a factory.

Naturally, through facilitated production comes increased competition, and examples of this are already emerging across the world. For instance, where the US and Europe once reigned supreme in manufacturing, new entrants from China have intensified the global competition in this fast-paced field by developing world-class production capabilities in a short period of time.

The connected enterprise

At its core, Industry 4.0 is driven by data – or perhaps more precisely, our newfound ability to capture, store and use data to our advantage. In the context of manufacturing, that means connecting the shop floor to the top floor to create a dynamic production environment. Thanks to the vast development of sensor technology and the Internet of Things, for instance, manufacturers can harness real-time data collected from customers and use it to enhance their product, allowing them to gain a competitive edge almost instantaneously.

What’s more, by attaching smart sensors to production tools within the factory, manufacturers can get a live feed of information regarding the health of machinery - for example, vibration sensing can provide a warning when equipment requires maintenance. In turn, manufacturers are able to significantly reduce equipment downtime and boost productivity while improving quality and reliability.

Supercharging automation with AI

Automation may already exist in production lines, but with advances in AI and remote communication coming thick and fast, this practice is primed to become a core component of the manufacturing process in the near future. For example, while a fully automated factory is not beyond the realms of possibility with today’s technology, even the most sophisticated machine requires human input to recognise and prevent failure.

Super-smart manufacturing will seek to overcome this issue by making it possible for machinery to understand far more complex objectives than those which they currently execute.

With this hurdle out of the way, the industry will likely undergo transformation previously unimaginable. If operations can be 100% automated and overseen from a central hub with regular remote check-ins, certain basic expenses such as heat and light throughout the factory will be rendered unnecessary. As well as huge cost savings, manufacturers can save energy and in turn, the environment.

Of course, the notion of doing away with humans on the factory floor is enough to raise concern regarding job security for millions of workers. However, if Industry 4.0 is anything like the digital revolution that came before it, strides in automation will simply lead to the creation of new roles. If this is true, the manufacturing industry has a bright future to look forward to.