Getting smart about smart manufacturing

Tips for metal fabricators on how to achieve the most benefits

An engineer touches a laptop to check robotic welding arms.

The potential benefits that smart manufacturing can provide make the adoption of such technologies by metal fabricating companies too hard to ignore. ipopba/iStock/Getty Images Plus

We don’t yet know the full impact of smart manufacturing systems. We’re a long way from being in the next industrial revolution or dismissing our current manufacturing activities as “old school.” But we are seeing equipment manufacturers offering advanced monitoring capabilities. And some early adopters are installing IoT plant management systems.

As reliable information about smart manufacturing successes and lessons learned remains scarce, we are moving into uncharted territory.

The best road to success is to employ solid systems engineering principles along with well-defined goals and project scope. You’ll need to leverage the experience and subject matter expertise of plant floor employees, as well as understand the math and outputs of your new system.

Following are some ideas about how to approach smart manufacturing and what it can do for you.

Discover Your Capabilities

Smart manufacturing provides insights into what your workforce and equipment can do. With these insights, you can expand your plant floor focus to include capabilities—perhaps your shop excels at a particular fabrication process, time to production, or delivery—that can give you an advantage.

With this new knowledge, you also might be able to adapt your production processes to include different or specialized product lines.

Develop Better Knowledge

The greatest advantage of smart manufacturing is its ability to support the discovery of relationships among properties, processes, and product quality. This new information can help manufacturers better plan and manage operations.

Smart manufacturing also lets you collect important information often neglected in manufacturing. Analysis of the distribution of material properties across a grade can help you better define specifications and anticipate problems. The distribution of ordered component quality errors can help you and your suppliers understand issues. Smart manufacturing also can help you manage energy cost and consumption and optimize usage for better performance and cost.

Avoid Data Obsolescence

Accurate and productive analysis demands quality data. Big data is pointless unless it accurately reflects relevant transactions and conditions. To achieve quality data requires a strategy for the capture and maintenance of data elements.

One important aspect to consider is whether stored data is relevant or obsolete. Your team must determine events that make previously captured information obsolete for current or predictive analysis. Such events might include:

  • Equipment overhaul.
  • Functional enhancements.
  • Process changes.
  • Supplier changes.
  • Input material changes.
  • Significant product specification changes.
  • Major plant floor enhancements affecting energy delivery, throughput, reliability, and maintenance changes.

Exploit Algorithmic Auditing

Algorithmic auditing is a recently developed technique to ensure that the purpose and context of analytical and machine learning applications meet management’s expectations. It is a social science discipline with the goal to remove bias from data and analysis.

This discipline is equally important to manufacturing, but traditional financial and internal audit practices are inadequate for plant floor applications. Algorithmic auditing should be conducted by experienced data analysts and subject management experts. The financial audit industry has proven to be ineffective in preventing the misapplication and misuse of critical data in manufacturing.

Cope With Workforce Changes

I expect the age of the low-cost commodity workforce to end. Smart manufacturing demands that manufacturers staff plants with skilled employees trained to function as subject matter experts and knowledgeable workers. Once you commit to information-focused manufacturing, you must also commit to training your workforce to manage information. That means you must also be trained to understand the demands of the digitally enabled plant and how to get employees to participate.

Many of your experienced employees already have the knowledge to transform. Skilled tradespeople already understand the dynamics and nuances of their work and the tools and equipment they use. Often, these employees need only training and encouragement to support a knowledge-based operation.

Many organizations have the archaic idea that sharing knowledge somehow reduces one’s influence. This needs to be eliminated. Knowledge silos are costly and can be destructive in a knowledge-based plant.

Improve Agility

Productivity, throughput, and efficiency remain important measures in successful manufacturing. The degree and speed of changes in products from automobiles to home appliances now demands agility throughout the supply chain.

Probably the greatest advantage smart manufacturing can offer is greater agility to meet changing demands in the market. With the confidence of a deep understanding of inputs, processes, and quality, you can better respond to new product needs and changing specifications.

Smart manufacturing promises to revolutionize our abilities in manufacturing. The real benefit comes from the knowledge and insights provided by a well-designed system and a trained and capable workforce. We have much to learn. Even the smallest steps to better monitor operations and provide deep learning can provide agile and efficient supply chains.

About the Author
4M Partners LLC

Bill Frahm


P.O. Box 71191

Rochester Hills, MI 48307