What is smart manufacturing?

Smart manufacturing, or running a smart factory, is often used interchangeably with industry 4.0, but it’s more accurate to say that it’s a way of leveraging industry 4.0. Smart manufacturing is an integrated network of machines that can monitor themselves and ongoing processes, generate data insights, and act upon them autonomously.

Smart manufacturing requires a number of technologies to work together, including big data from IIoT devices and sensor and AI/ML-powered analytics, automation and robotics, VR/AR technology, 3D printing, cloud connectivity, 5G, CNC machining, and digital twins.

The key feature of smart manufacturing is that all the piecemeal digitization initiatives that had been siloed and isolated across the factory are integrated into a single united body. Smart manufacturing implements a flatter, non-hierarchical plant structure in place of the hierarchical one that came before.

Digitization and smart devices are valuable for all verticals, but smart manufacturing reveals especial value for process plants, which grapple with enormous datasets, often hazardous working environments, and the potential for great losses from unplanned downtime.

In an increasingly complex market, it’s no longer possible for process plants to remain competitive with anything less than full visibility and control over every aspect of production and operations. Plants need smart manufacturing to cope with fluctuating market demands, changing business contexts, increasingly higher standards of safety, environmental impact, and quality, and ever-more complex supply and distribution chains.

With smart manufacturing, process plants can:

  • Use data to optimize processes
  • Open up visibility into every corner of the plant – processes, resources, assets – with real time granular data analysis
  • Increase safety for employees and the wider plant environment
  • Become more agile, making them better able to pivot in a crisis like COVID-19 and to respond to customer demands for customization and small lots
  • Reduce waste by cutting the number of poor quality batches, moving physical tests to online simulations, and decreasing energy waste
  • Advance innovation and speed up time to market

This is reflected in the expansion of smart manufacturing adoption. Smart manufacturing is predicted to grow from $277.81 billion in 2022 to $658.41 billion by 2029 at a CAGR of 13.1%, driven by the adoption of advanced technologies such as AI, automation, and cloud computing.

How can process plants implement smart manufacturing?

Advance digitization

Smart manufacturing rests on integrated digitized processes, so the first step is to ensure that any processes that are still analog or run manually are digitzed.

Improve data management

Big data is the foundation of smart manufacturing and AI/ML-powered processes. Review your data capture and data storage protocols to uncover bottlenecks and remove data silos, so you can provide ML algorithms with the datasets they need to make accurate predictions.

Build a smart manufacturing culture

Smart manufacturing is an extension of digital transformation, and it’s widely known that digital transformation success rests on digital culture. Ensure that your employees understand the benefits and requirements of a smart factory, retrain or add new talent to ensure you have the necessary skills, and lead from the top with management buy-in and support.

Connect networks and processes

Most process plants implement digital projects and AI tools in a haphazard, isolated fashion, according to the areas of greatest need and value generation. Smart manufacturing requires you to connect individual assets and systems into a single integrated network.

Pay attention to cybersecurity

Although a smart factory brings many benefits for process plants, it also potentially expands your attack surface and opens up security vulnerabilities. It’s crucial to continually test your perimeter defenses and check your security profile to avoid leaving your plant susceptible to hacking attempts.

How does smart manufacturing make process plants more competitive?

Smart manufacturing enables process plants to be more agile and innovative while cutting costs and waste and improving compliance with safety, quality, and environmental regulations. With smart manufacturing, process plants can take a more proactive approach to business growth strategy while improving their capability to cope with the unexpected, be it sudden changes in customer demand, broken supply chains, or a global pandemic.