How Today's Cutting-Edge Smart Factories Are Transforming Global Industry
Smart factories bring sophisticated network solutions to bear on systemic industrial inefficiencies. With the right tools, they can help your business advance to industry 4.0.
Leveraging cutting-edge technology and emerging AI capabilities, smart factories are poised to usher in what experts have termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Research from Accenture indicates that this new manufacturing and technological paradigm could represent a $14.2 trillion slice of the global economy by 2030.
For stakeholders throughout the industrial supply chain, understanding what makes a factory “smart” and identifying how those capabilities can optimize your business is paramount. A range of promising technologies — from machine learning and the Internet of Things (IoT) to practical robotics and connected sensors — now make it possible to automate assembly lines, improve supply chain management, and find operational efficiencies in just about every corner of industry.
The transition to industry 4.0 won’t happen overnight, however. As smart factory technologies develop, they will gradually reorient the 21st century supply chain to a model in which hyper-connected networks knit together a wide range of key assets. The potential benefits of such a hyperconnected industry are nearly limitless.
Understanding the Smart Factory
Put simply, a smart factory is an industrial facility in which advanced machinery — connected by strong, cutting-edge networks — can perform mission-critical manufacturing operations automatically and with the ability to self-monitor and self-correct. While automation has long played an important role in the supply chain, smart factories leverage revolutionary technologies to measure performance in real time, identify potential issues, and make the necessary adjustments — all without human intervention.
This doesn’t mean that smart factories have entirely eliminated the role of the human worker in the modern supply chain. However, by pairing manufacturing assets with powerful IoT networks, smart factories enable human stakeholders to accelerate, automate, and improve decision-making, adding tremendous value in the process.
The Tech Behind It All
Technologies once viewed as mere fantasy are now coming to factory floors — at scale. Smart factory technologies have become increasingly attainable as costs have come down, and networks have improved. Sophisticated passive sensors have made it possible for industrial networks to gather huge amounts of actionable data with which they’re able to optimize core processes.
This wealth of data makes new capabilities all the more useful in manufacturing. For instance, the Internet of Things can give smart factories and human personnel greater insight into the operation of primary assets and the status of work orders. Communicating over reliable networks optimized for these environments, IoT-enabled devices can make automated decision-making more accurate and timely.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is now able to interpret data during those decision-making processes. With machine learning algorithms, smart factories can do more than just track operations. They can isolate inefficiencies, evaluate alternative strategies, and implement new protocols without backing up the supply chain in the process.
Robots are playing important roles in these strategies, as well. Collaborative robots can support humans working on factory floors, either by assisting in labor-intensive tasks or carrying out operational functions while workers evaluate workflows on a more qualitative level.
Who Stands to Benefit
For stakeholders evaluating how this new manufacturing reality will affect their business, it’s no longer a question of whether to develop smart factory initiatives, but when. The potential benefits are far too great to ignore. But with no one-size-fits-all smart factory set-up, it’s up to each organization to determine how their teams can leverage smart factory capabilities to their advantage.
As an example, if IoT technology identifies an issue with a core component of the assembly line, 3D printing integrated into a smart factory system can help businesses create their own spare machine parts to keep their supply chain running in the event of a malfunction. This kind of functionality could benefit everyone ranging from automotive manufacturers to producers of heavy machinery.
Supporting the Smart Factory
While smart factories and the promise of a Fourth Industrial Revolution are compelling, the underlying technology needed to maintain this new manufacturing paradigm is crucial, and not to be ignored. The smart factory of the future cannot run on the dumb networks of the past. IoT-connected devices and manufacturing assets can introduce an unexpected level of interference into industrial settings. The bandwidth and data demands that these kinds of applications require will demand cutting-edge purpose-built "smart factory networks."
Before corporate stakeholders can even begin to think about industry 4.0, however, they’ll need to develop networks that can support it. Whether they’re interested in increasingly advanced robotics or the decentralized decision-making made possible by AI, organizations will have to build the digital infrastructure capable of accommodating these data-intensive technologies before they can benefit from a fully realized, automated manufacturing environment.