There is a new Industrial Revolution on the horizon, one that promises to turn the current state of manufacturing as we know it on its head. This new future blends information, technology and human intelligence in a way that will fundamentally shift the way products are made, sold and delivered.
In its simplest definition, Smart Manufacturing (SM) is connecting machines to the Internet to gather data and monitor the production process throughout a plant. Ultimately, it’s the convergence of operating technologies (OT) and information technologies (IT) to improve manufacturing performance.
Smart manufacturing isn’t a new concept. In fact, the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition (SMLC) was established in 2012 to get SM off the ground. The coalition is comprised of thought leaders from universities, industrial companies and laboratories around the country.
SMLC defines Smart Manufacturing as “manufacturing in which all information is available when it is needed, where it is needed and in the form it is most useful—infusing manufacturing intelligence throughout the lifecycle of design, engineering, planning and production.”
Its mission is clear: to evolve industrial manufacturing as is stands today into a networked, open architecture infrastructure whereby unprecedented data is gathered in real time, analyzed and used to improve business decisions across the enterprise.
Another well-known organization, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is also an early adopter of SM and advanced manufacturing. NIST defines SM as, “the synthesis of advanced manufacturing capabilities and digital technologies to collaborate and create highly customizable products faster, cheaper, better and greener.”
This digital revolution is not just happening in our own back yard. In fact, the German government is funding an initiative called Industrie 4.0 to help German industrial manufacturers take a strong hold in SM.
“The Industrie 4.0 strategy promotes connecting machines, autonomous sensor-actuator components and information systems to create intelligent networks and cyber physical systems – intelligent objects that communicate and interact with each other.”
“Factories of the Future” is the European Commission’s $2 billion initiative for adopting SM principles in the European Union’s manufacturing sector.
U.S. industry is actually lagging when it comes to SM. According to a 2014 Manufacturing Outlook Survey by the American Society for Quality, only 13 percent of U.S. companies are implementing SM. However, it’s important to note that of those organizations that say they’ve adopted SM, 82 percent claim they have experienced increased efficiency, 49 percent experienced fewer product defects and 45 percent experienced increased customer satisfaction.
What smart manufacturing looks like
OK, so what does all this really mean? What does a smart factory actually look like?
The Internet of Things (IoT) “bring[s] together the worlds of the machine and Internet in the context of a single solution.” It is the “digitization of the physical world.”
Instead of legacy systems working as silos with their own limited amount of data (generally used to analyze system failures after the fact), machines will talk to machines, collecting and analyzing data to steer real-time improvements.
The factory of the future will use Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies (sensors, applications) to make production more flexible. A smart factory will not need to make a production line for a particular product; instead production modules will be swapped in and out, easily reconfigured as necessary to create new lines and customized products.
SM uses sensors to provide access to nearly unlimited amounts of real-time data — trusted data that will transform the way decisions are made plant-wide.
What smart manufacturing is not
While it may appear that drastic changes must be made in order to create a smart factory, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Certainly, investments must be made in advanced technologies, but the actual path to “smart,” doesn’t have to be an expensive, complicated endeavor.
The journey to SM is a progressive one. Existing equipment can be outfitted with smart technology to avoid ripping apart a plant and starting over. It’s important to build on current capabilities and progress one step at a time; this will also help to make the case for funding.
Benefits of smart manufacturing
- More efficient floor operations
- Less downtime
- Lower company costs
- An increase in product output
- Safer work environments
- Visibility across the supply chain
- Higher quality assurance and increased factory throughput
About the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition
The Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition (SMLC) is an organization of manufacturing practitioner, supplier, and technology companies; manufacturing consortia; universities; and government laboratories committed to the goals of Smart Manufacturing. The coalition has collectively developed and is pursuing a comprehensive technology and business roadmap to develop and implement Smart Manufacturing capabilities that will enable next-generation economic, energy, sustainability and EH&S manufacturing performance and competitiveness.
 MESA International. White Paper 52. Smart Manufacturing – Landscape Explained. January, 2016.
 Bhatnagar, R.; Slama, D.; Morrish, J.; Puhlmann, F. Enterprise IoT (Internet of Things): Strategies & Best Practices for Connected Products and Services. 2015.