Time for Small and Mid-sized Companies to Get Smart5th and Final Post in a Series: What You Need To Know About Smart Manufacturing

My final post in this series on smart manufacturing may be the most important one for you. So far, since my initial post “What Is Smart Manufacturing, Exactly?” where I explained the term, I have dealt with the great productivity improvements it can generate. I’ve also talked about the obstacles some companies face in embracing it, primarily dealing the perceived big price tag and the considerable security concerns that can come along. But with all this large scale discussion, I need to emphasize one thing: you don’t need to be a big company to realize the benefits of moving to a smarter manufacturing process.

Small and mid-sized businesses need to take smart manufacturing seriously and take at least some proactive steps in that direction now, not only to make future growth possible but also to maintain current levels of success against ever-smarter competition. The Smart Manufacturing Leadership Council (SMLC) makes a convincing argument that implementing individual components of smart manufacturing can pay dividends immediately, and making purchasing decisions with an eye toward future conversion will position your company for an easier and more efficient transition down the line.

Any Size Company Can Think Differently

A basic grasp of the smart manufacturing structure can help demonstrate the advantages along the way.  In traditional systems, machines just “do their thing” – performing whatever function they are designed for, pushing products or assemblies down the line, and waiting for humans to analyze how well they’re doing it – and make changes as necessary.

Humans in separate “silos” attempt to manage the flow of materials before they reach the machine, monitor product throughput, input customer orders, make transportation decisions, ensure customer delivery and satisfaction, and more. Productivity is determined by how often, how accurately, and how thoroughly those humans do their jobs. Even if they perform flawlessly, time (and often product) is lost along the way.

In smart manufacturing, machines are equipped with sophisticated sensors that provide constant information about their own performance, and send it to advanced data analytics software in the cloud for review and possible operational adjustments to machine function in response. Connections also link both equipment and software to virtually every other stage and activity in the supply chain, so the whole system works as one synchronized operation. Productivity is controlled and maximized in real time.

It’s a great concept, and one that is reality in many companies right now. But does it make sense – financially or otherwise – for companies with operations that function on a smaller scale, or with fewer “moving parts” to orchestrate? And what about manufacturers who may appreciate the upside, but simply aren’t able to make the financial commitment at this point to fully convert their operations to smart manufacturing?

It’s Smart Manufacturing to Start

First of all, as mentioned in an earlier post, the cost is not as prohibitive as is commonly thought. Old machines can be retrofitted.  And with the supply chain and production controlled by cloud analytics, expensive enterprise software packages are often unnecessary. Finally, 82 percent of manufacturers who have adopted smart manufacturing report increased productivity, though only one third of them have incorporated it fully.

Another reason to pull the proverbial trigger: even one machine reporting its own data in real time can bring significant economic return. Examples are plentiful. In an injection-molding product line, temperatures and pressures are critical to ensuring product quality. If those variables fluctuate, a stream of flawed products result, and plenty of production (that means money) is lost before the problem is noticed and rectified.

If those machines are fitted with sensors that constantly monitor and report temperatures and pressures, adjustments can be made to prevent the conditions that cause the waste. Defective products are avoided and money is saved, even if the machine is not yet linked to the full capability of a smart manufacturing system.

In many industries, the malfunction of major capital equipment can be disastrous. When equipped with sensors that measure and report performance indicators like moisture, vibration, oil pressures and many more, a broad range of machines, from wind turbines to car washes, can provide plenty of warning and allow operators to avoid or manage the disruptions.

At Very Least, Plan Ahead

At a minimum, small and mid-sized companies who are in the process of buying new equipment should consider paying a bit more to purchase smart-enabled versions with features like microprocessors and Ethernet ports. Given current manufacturing trends and competitive pressures, you are likely to want that capability sooner rather than later, and you’ll be ready for it.

If you own or manage a small or mid-sized business, it’s time to give smart manufacturing serious thought. Efficiency is a pretty tired word but it remains a very profitable one. Those of us who run businesses, will always keep that in mind. If we’re smart.

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