The Benefits of Smart Manufacturing Factories
We’ve all heard the words “work smarter, not harder”, and can probably all agree that their original intention was to inspire workers to find efficiencies that would make their lives a little easier. Regardless of the intended usage, there’s one sector in particular that has taken to the spirit of working smarter, not harder: manufacturing.
For years, manufacturers have been increasingly receptive to the adoption of technologies capable of improving their output while minimizing their cost of goods sold. Like most innovations however, diving into smart manufacturing is not without its challenges but the benefits associated with it are simply too enticing to ignore. Let’s examine some of the key benefits of what have dubbed “smart factories”.
What is a Smart Factory?
Though there are many benefits associated with operating a smart factory, let’s pump the breaks for a second to first understand what exactly makes a factory “smart”. The term smart factory describes an environment in which machinery and equipment are connected digitally in a way that allows processes and automation to be optimized. Optimization is not achieved simply by connecting all the physical devices into a single or group of networks, but rather by the vast amount of data that is gathered by the devices on the factory floor.
In some systems, automated machinery and robotics armed with powerful computers can process data and make slight adjustments to improve production autonomously. In truth, smart factories can be qualified differently from one to the next, but they generally include some combination of physical production equipment, data gathering, and communication technologies that is applied across the entire operation.
What are the Benefits?
There are numerous benefits associated with smart manufacturing and while the cost or scope of work required to transition a manufacturing operation into one that is more efficient can act as a barrier to entry for some, it is in a manufacturer’s best interest to begin planning for the transition now. Over the long term, the benefits far exceed the financial investment that will be required.
- A Greatly Improved Rate of Production. Since a smart factory can share information up and down its supply chain in real time, those who supply raw goods for production can use the data to adjust quantities ordered so that only that which is needed arrives just before it is needed. Often referred to as Just In Time (JIT) ordering, manufacturers will rarely face unplanned downtime from a lack of production materials. This alone can drastically improve a factory’s annual output, income, and profitability.
- Optimize Inventory Levels. It may sound counter intuitive, but a manufacturer’s inventory can be the root cause of several big problems. If there is too much inventory, the manufacturer must absorb the cost to store it. If they have limited storage space, excessive inventory of one product could hamper their ability to produce and store another. If there is a lack of inventory, the problem is obvious – unfulfilled sales. Smart manufacturing and the data gathering and dissemination associated with allows manufacturers to optimize their inventory levels so that their ability to fill orders is consistent without requiring them to hold onto copious amounts of product on site.
- Efficiency Yields Higher Quality Goods. When efficiencies are found on the production line, it generally results in a higher quality product being produced. Not only does that mean that more items will pass QA before leaving the factory, it also means that fewer products will be returned as defective. In short, higher quality goods means savings to the business; savings that can then be funnelled back into the business and spent in a number of different ways. For example, a manufacturer may take the savings and reinvest it in further automating the production line. Alternately, they could invest in product development to improve the quality of other products being made under the same roof.
- Predictive Maintenance. Unplanned maintenance can mean production grinds to a halt at the most inopportune time. Smart factories have greater visibility into the state of all of their systems components which of course allows them to perform preventative maintenance before a more catastrophic failure can occur. Preventative maintenance may come with some downtime, but it will be substantially shorter in duration and less costly than the alternative.
What Does it Mean for Jobs?
From the outside looking in, it might seem as though the propagation of automation technology and smart factories are a very real threat to jobs in the manufacturing sector. In fact, many who work in manufacturing jobs have viewed these technologies as a veritable death knell to their livelihood. At first glance, this might seem like a reasonable conclusion to come to, but looking back at the various industrial revolutions over the last couple centuries, the “lost jobs” argument doesn’t really hold any water.
Yes, with the adoption of certain technologies some roles will become obsolete, but that doesn’t mean that there will be fewer opportunities for workers in their respective sectors. Automation tends to replace the most repetitive and dangerous tasks, meaning displaced workers can be trained to take on more specialized, higher paying, and fulfilling roles. Relevant courses like automation technician training can quickly help workers fill the gaps left in the wake of a technological transition.
Smarter Than the Average Factory
What is smart manufacturing? Well, it’s clearly the way of the future. The rate at which automation technology is adopted in factories will continue to grow at an exponential rate. Soon, factories that failed to invest in or plan for their smart factory will not be able to compete. The inherent benefits are already significant, but it’s a foregone conclusion that many more will be discovered in the years to come. Of course, this also means employment opportunities will grow commensurately. If you’re interested in automation technician training, explore what George Brown College has to offer.