The manufacturing industry has witnessed three major revolutions. The first revolution harnessed water and steam power for manufacturing while the second revolution used electric power for mass production. The third revolution started the digital revolution and advances in IT were utilised to automate processes. Since the last few years, we are in the midst of an age and industry where the manufacturing process is dynamic, data-driven, interconnected, and highly precise and efficient - Industry 4.0 - or smart manufacturing per say.
The National Institute of Standards and Technologies defines smart manufacturing as manufacturing in an environment where the systems are fully integrated with each other and collaborate to respond to any change in the parameters of the process. There are numerous examples of how IoT and Big Data help to collect, analyse, and rectify inefficiencies in manufacturing and help to improve the bottom line. For example, a gold mine in Africa analysed their data throughout the process and noted that the fluctuations in oxygen levels during one of the key processes. Fixing the fluctuation upped the yield by 3.7% and boosted revenue by $20 million annually.
Smart manufacturing differs from the current production line process fundamentally with respect to how it views the whole manufacturing ecosystem. The smart process is based on four key ideologies of manufacturing.
Firstly, the entire production line is considered an ecosystem and all devices, sensors, machines, as well as the operators, are expected to be connected through the IoT.
The next principle is absolute data or information transparency. Again IoT ensures data availability by using sensors at the most fundamental level of the processes. The value-add from this data is provided by running analytics and generating dashboards to ensure efficient automated decision making.
The third principle focuses on utilising cyber automated processes to use robotics to replace tasks which humans are inefficient at carrying out or might be unsafe for the workers and still ensure efficiency and consistency at the workplace.
The last principle brings all the instruments and data points together and utilises it for dynamic and decentralised decision making.
An efficient manufacturing ecosystem does not limit itself to simply the production line where products are manufactured. It also involves all the auxiliary things such as tracking employee details, administrative tasks such as payroll, leaves, and attendance, HR tasks such as compensation, incentives, compliance with company policies, etc. A smart manufacturing process attempts to make all these processes efficient as they have a direct impact on the bottom line. According to an article in Forbes, manufacturing overhead cost in the US is about 16% of the product cost. The smart companies aim to reduce these costs to increase margins. Fortunately, with the advent of technology, a lot of the data points can be captured and used to make automated decisions. For example, intelligent industries use biometric sensors at entry and exit points for employees. This simple implementation automates the calculation of the employee attendance, leave balance, time spent working on the tasks versus time spent on break, etc.
Even today, a lot of companies have semi-automated if not entirely manual processes for all administrative functions. This manual work eats up a lot of man-hours, not to mention it could also lead to inaccuracies. A smart time and attendance tracking system can help to substitute a lot of cumbersome manual processes. Some other IoT inspired automations which smart companies utilise are systems to manage overtime, leaves, work shifts, workforce utilisation, and efficiency at performing a task, and so on.
Also, cloud computing and seamless connectivity help to integrate mobile solutions with the processes. Mobile and tablet solutions can be built which can be used to monitor the progress and make changes wherever necessary. Smart industry mobile solutions help to mitigate expensive production risks.
It is of critical importance to smart companies to not just gather data but to reproduce it in a format from which decisions can be made and insights can be derived. Real-time dashboards and alerts is also an important offering of such industries. This helps to prioritise and reduce delays in decision making as well as lessen any risks.
The long-term goal of smart companies does not just stop at cutting inefficiencies and making better products. The goal is to generate more data points and to enhance the dynamic decision making. Industries will then be able to significantly improve process efficiency, automate cumbersome labour oriented processes, and boost the manufacturing sector globally.