Three Steps to Start the Smart Manufacturing Journey

There has been a lot of discussion about smart manufacturing lately, and many initiatives have turned their focus from manufacturing execution systems (MES) and manufacturing operations management (MOM) to smart manufacturing. However, as I’ve written before, smart manufacturing does not replace any MES or MOM initiative. Just the opposite—MES and MOM are fundamental pillars of any smart manufacturing initiative.

Any vendor proposing a software solution in any way related to manufacturing is now promoting it as a smart manufacturing enabler. MESA International has identified smart manufacturing as one of the key trends in the manufacturing space and is working hard to shape it correctly. The organization has created one of the most comprehensive definitions: “Smart manufacturing is the endeavor to design, deploy, connect and manage enterprise manufacturing operations and systems that enable proactive management of the manufacturing enterprise through informed, timely (as close to real time as possible), in‐depth decision execution.”

Made simple, smart manufacturing is all about making the best decisions in the shortest time based on the most accurate and actual information—whether those decision are made by people, automated machines or cyber-physical systems. This is the foundation for being flexible, effective, responsive and competitive, and for preserving margins.

It looks like it’s not such a big challenge for any company to start a smart manufacturing journey, but in reality it is. Many companies still struggle to identify how to approach the problem and where to start. First of all, I would like to clear the field of a frequent error:

A smart manufacturing initiative does not need to be huge project. It can—or perhaps must—start small, but with the right approach.

Here are three important suggestions based on my personal experience:

1. The initiative must start at the top of the organization. It’s not a matter of implementing a new technology, or new software. It’s defining a new business strategy that impacts the entire company at all levels and has to be designed correctly and consistently with the company goals. Being smart (or, rather, smarter) is nothing absolute; it really depends on which direction the business is moving and what challenges it faces. Based on the strategic vision, a company must define its organization and the effective processes to coordinate the organization. Only after this is the technology chosen to support the processes and empower the organization.

2. Start small from the most sensitive areas. Analyze the most significant pains and start there to get the fastest and biggest benefits. Solving 80 percent of the full problem typically costs 20 percent of the full cost, while optimizing the last 20 percent is the most expensive part. Do not think that any type of system you put in place will last for 20 years. It’s not old-style automation where an asset performs the same task for years and years; it’s all about adapting to market changes and demands and being flexible. Your business strategy will adapt probably every five years or less, and the organization and technological systems you have implemented will need to be updated and adjusted as well. They are part of a formal or informal continuous improvement initiative, and they will need to be continuously improved. For this reason, keep them lean and do not over-sophisticate them.
There are many stages in a smart manufacturing initiative, and their sequence depends a lot on the maturity level of the company. The final goal will be a fully integrated enterprise—from the shop floor to the strategic enterprise resource planning (ERP) level and along the full supply chain—but today’s goals will be simpler for most. Real-time data collection, MES implementation and manufacturing intelligence dashboarding could be places to start to implement and measure the results.

3. Start from people. Consider that no matter where you start and no matter which technology you adopt, it will impact the organization and the people. It will change the way they operate and will require some time for adoption. If you choose an area that brings them obvious and easy benefits, they will immediately buy into the initiative and support it. The more you automate production and enable automatic decisions at any level, the more people are required to elevate their role and contribution and make more complex decisions. Smart manufacturing is not about replacing people; it’s about focusing on people to empower them as much as possible to provide the intelligence that the machines or software cannot guarantee. In smart manufacturing, people become more important, not less.

The critical thing is to take the first step quickly. With a pilot project or with a more complex and impactful project, it’s important to buy the ticket and start the journey. In the digital era in which we live, there is no option. Companies can choose to change and evolve or be overtaken by more agile players that can be totally disruptive to the marketplace.

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