by Conrad Leiva, MESA Smart Manufacturing Working Group Chairman
New technologies are not just enabling optimisation of existing processes – companies are rethinking their processes, value chains and business models.
Smart manufacturing – a way to deliver the end product with intelligent, real-time orchestration and optimisation of business, physical and digital processes within factories and across the entire value chain – is the future. Resources and processes are automated, integrated, monitored and continuously evaluated based on high levels of transparency and data exchange as close to real-time as possible.
That is how the imminent future of manufacturing is seen by MESA International, a non-profit community of manufacturers, suppliers and consultants cooperating to accelerate innovation and IT adoption in manufacturing. It is a broad-system vision for efficient collaboration among stakeholders in the smart manufacturing ecosystem. It’s also a vision within reach in the next two decades, thanks to advances in platforms that are making integrated systems and technologies accessible to more manufacturers and further empowered by consortia focused on making available the knowledge required to run smart manufacturing systems and ecosystems.
Several trends are fueling the optimism:
#1. Product manufacturing and service are converging based on new market demands
For many products, the market is switching from buying a mass-produced product off-the-shelf to buying a custom configured product as-a-service. These new blended manufacturing-service business models require more customer interaction and elevate the value of the digital data that goes along with the product during its service life. These ecosystems are forced to evolve to deliver the required data services.
#2. Manufacturers are redefining their processes and services around new enabling technologies
New technologies are not just enabling optimisation of existing processes. Companies are rethinking their processes, value chains and business models. The proliferation of smartphones, IoT, cloud services, low-code platforms and DIY machine connectivity are causing manufacturers to empower the customer and citizen technologists (such as engineers, developers and data scientists) with more data and tools in order to accelerate the pace of innovation in the whole ecosystem.
#3. Hybrid human-machine processes are on the rise
When innovation led to the high use of robotics in factories in the 1980s, many people predicted that within 10 years all factories would be filled with robots, and there would be no human operators. Decades later, more than half of manufacturing tasks are still performed by human operators.
Rather than replace humans, robots will work collaboratively with a balanced distribution of responsibility. Technologies such as cobots, exoskeletons, artificial intelligence (AI), and augmented reality (AR) will augment, assist and empower the future worker.
#4. Manufacturing ecosystems are achieving higher levels of connectivity and transparency
There has been much progress in engineering, production automation and enterprise business systems in the last few decades. Manufacturing execution systems (MES) and paperless operations are the new norm in factories. Machines are getting smarter, with embedded computers, AI, and application program interfaces (APIs) ready to exchange data with MES and cloud platforms. Smart manufacturing eliminates manual steps and inconsistencies, bringing silos of information together to link them in a full digital thread of automated data exchanges.
The smart factory becomes a node in a connected smart ecosystem with API requirements for partner and customer interaction. The required data exchanges go beyond purchase order, shipment and warranty data if the ecosystem is delivering new data services with the product. For example, if a company is including a product digital twin as an additional service, it must be ready to make accessible, to the ecosystem and customer, 3D and simulation models of the product along with each unit’s unique as-built operational data.
#5. Manufacturing systems are incorporating more automated intelligence
The availability of low-cost sensing, pervasive connectivity and cloud computing services has made it practical to access and holistically analyse data across integrated systems. Unstructured datasets such as images, natural language and even messages in social media have become part of the data available for analysis. More integrated data and AI capabilities are bringing us closer to systems with automated routine decisions where humans intervene only when necessary.
#6. Manufacturing culture is embracing digital
Manufacturing companies are investing more into their organisational culture. There is a recognition that technology plays a key role in the company image and in attracting talent. National governments have incentives for companies to adopt smart manufacturing and are supporting efforts to educate the workforce with the required new skills. Staffing services are evolving to fill the demand for highly specialised skills.
The above trends are contributing toward the realisation of the smart manufacturing future. For more information visit the many open resources at MESA International’s resource portal at www.mesa.org.