Industry 4.0: Building the ‘smart factory’ of tomorrow — today

Imagine walking into a factory that resembles a high-tech research lab. It is a stark contrast to the image of manufacturing industries we have in our mind, except that this is not a dream or the distant future anymore because we are much closer to this image than you really think. Welcome to the world of smart factories — the new frontier of efficient manufacturing and production.

What is a smart factory?

smart factories
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According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, smart factories are a “fully integrated and collaborative manufacturing system that responds in real-time to meet the changing demands and conditions in factories, supply network, and customer needs.”

A smart factory, as the name suggests, is a manufacturing or production facility that is highly digitized, a place where the systems are interconnected with each other, and data is exchanged about each aspect of production in real-time. This communication flows smoothly and seamlessly between the different systems and the entire production process happens automatically without any human interference.

A key aspect of smart factories is data. When data flows through systems to achieve connected operations, the facility as a whole is able to learn and adapt to the changing needs of the business. In other words, smart factories are intelligent production systems that learn on-the-go and adapt dynamically to changes.

Smart factories achieve this high level of automation and efficiency using a myriad of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), machine-to-machine communication (M2M), and more. In addition, the term “smart factory” also includes the connection between a shop floor and its overall supply chain through an interconnected IT landscape for a smooth inflow and outflow of materials to and from the industry respectively.

Due to such drastic changes in operations, smart factories are often seen as the fourth industrial revolution — popularly known as Industry 4.0 — and they will combine physical machines with business processes to make complex decisions related to efficiency and optimization without a human touch.

Why move to a smart factory setup?

Now that we know what smart factories are, why should we move toward them? Let’s take a look at some of the benefits a business can get from these smart factories.

Predictive maintenance

According to a report by eMaint, businesses spend 80 percent of their time reacting to maintenance issues rather than preventing them. This translates to a huge drain of resources including employee productivity, time, and money. Smart factories overcome this problem with proactive predictive maintenance capability. This gives users early warnings when a machine’s or network’s performance is going to go down, so the team can take the necessary measures to fix the same. Hence, no downtime or losses accrue to the business.

Improves efficiency

Internet Of Things Industry Project Industry 4

Smart factories bridge the gap between control systems and their on-premises implementation by bringing together both the physical and digital systems. This means smart factories combine control systems, data systems, and physical systems to reduce time lags in the production process. In turn, this leads to higher efficiency and better utilization of available resources. Smart factories can produce output at a staggering rate compared to traditional industries, and that too within the shortest possible time.

Optimizes assets

Smart factories optimize different assets and help an organization to get the most out of them. It helps to identify the performance and location of your people, equipment, and resources in real-time so you can make the necessary inventory changes on-the-fly. Also, it helps the organization to tap into the synergy of all these resources working together in order to gain a significant advantage in productivity and revenue.

Enhances collaboration

The performance of your machines and the overall visibility of your production facility extend way beyond the four walls where your machines are kept. When you connect the supply chain with your production facility, it creates a dynamic workflow that provides the necessary information to every related team within your organization. This enhances collaboration, increases productivity, and ensures the smooth conduct of operations from the beginning to end.

Scalable infrastructure

When you set up the infrastructure for the first time, the capital costs are high. But over time, the infrastructure becomes highly cost-effective because it can be expanded easily to meet the growing needs of your business. Also, your infrastructure will enhance productivity, safety, and security, so you don’t have to spend additional money on these aspects. As a bonus, your smart factory will comply with all security practices and specifications laid down by different statutory bodies.

Better mobility for employees

Employees and supervisors have the option to move around the factory floor and access data from any system to check the efficiency of production systems. This enhances their role, increases their productivity, and improves their overall motivation to be a part of the organization. It boosts creativity as well and can open up opportunities for employees to design and implement new solutions.

As you can see these different benefits augur well for your organization and this is why the world as a whole is moving towards Industry 4.0.

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Where are we?

Undoubtedly, the above scenario feels like an image out of a sci-fi movie. Is this the reality today? How far along are we?

Though we are a few years away from having the perfectly automated smart factory, the good news is many companies have started implementing the myriad aspects of a smart factory and they are seeing the benefits as well. Let’s take a look at a few such emerging smart factories.

Siemens electronic works facility; Amberg, Germany

This smart factory of Siemens is a good example of advanced automation that combines the real and virtual worlds together. This facility is involved in making Simatic control devices that comprise of more than 1.6 billion components made from 10,000 products sourced from more than 250 suppliers around the world. And this plant makes more than 950 products every day.

The capability of this factory far exceeds that of the other Siemens’ facilities because of the sheer variables and complexities it can handle. Such a smart factory is possible due to the inter-working of many advanced technologies that come together to create an efficient and error-free IT ecosystem.

According to a report by Gartner, this facility enjoys a 99 Percent reliability rate and records only about 15 defects per million. This rate is expected to come down over the next few years when these systems learn the mistakes and try to avoid them.

Scania production facility; Södertälje, Sweden

Scania is a leading provider of transport solutions that include trucks and buses, vehicle financing, insurance, and rental services. It also manufactures industrial and marine engines.

To streamline their production process and to improve their overall productivity, this company decided to take the smart factory route. The smart factory lab set up by Scania explores and assesses new solutions for existing problems before they are implemented in production.

South Korea’s smart factories

South Korea is seeing rapid adoption of smart factories across all segments, thanks to a proactive approach by the South Korean government. It is estimated that South Korea will have more than 30,000 smart factories by 2025 to tap into the growing digitization and the emergence of new technologies.

The government is providing incentives to companies and is planning to invest around $189 million into R&D by 2020. It is worthy to note that 99 percent of all businesses in South Korea are small and medium-sized.

Besides these examples, there are thousands of companies around the world that are automating parts of their production process to get the best possible benefits of smart factories. As new technologies emerge, there is no doubt that more companies will automate and integrate more aspects of their operations and soon, smart factory will become the order of the day. The good news is we don’t have to wait forever to see this transformation. Experts believe that by 2025, smart factories will be present everywhere.

What do you think of these smart factories? Have you taken any steps toward adopting it within your organization? Please share your insights with us in the comments section.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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