Delivering a smart factory: the challenges
The list challenges when it comes to developing a smart factory is long and diverse, but some of the major areas to think about are as follows.
A smart factory cannot be bought off the shelf. It needs to be carefully designed and tailored to the needs of the organisation in question, even when it is based around non-proprietary technology. This requires a logical and pragmatic understanding of the organisation’s needs and goals, and careful project management throughout.
There’s no getting around it – creating a smart factory costs money. Deploying brand-new connected hardware on the factory floor clearly requires an upfront investment, but so too does retrofitting existing equipment with connected sensors. On an ongoing basis, whilst smart factories should ultimately drive cost efficiencies in terms of streamlined processes and shifts to models like predictive maintenance, they still involve different financial models to legacy factories. Measuring those costs against the benefits realised by the smart factory, and therefore evaluating the success of a smart factory project, can also be challenging.
The IIoT marks a radical shift in how industrial hardware is managed, operated and maintained – and this means that in-depth training is often necessary to enable staff to adapt to the new setup. Maintenance and engineering staff, for example, are required to move away from old processes of regular manual checks, and plan their schedules based on data automatically generated by the factory floor. Production and assembly staff may be required to start using augmented reality technologies. Upskilling existing staff members to use this new technology requires additional investment in terms of time and money.
The smart factory is, by nature, a connected factory – and this means that protecting it against digital vandalism and deliberate infiltration has to become a major priority. Cyberattacks on the smart factory can have a devastating impact in terms of day-to-day operations and long-term protection of assets, so it is vital that organisations developing smart factories can both defend against cyberattacks and rapidly identify, isolate and mitigate them if and when they do happen.
Governance and compliance
Much of the smart factory’s intelligence – its ability to learn from itself and optimise processes without human interaction – fundamentally transforms the ways in which organisations manage their internal processes and achieve and demonstrate regulatory compliance. New processes and audit trails may need to be developed.
Keys to success
How, then, can industrial and manufacturing organisations best meet these challenges and develop smart factories of the future?
Just as there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ technology solution for building a smart factory, so there is no single path to success for creating one. However, there are some principles to follow.
Project management principles: aims and objectives
Too many industrial organisations still approach the smart factory as in inevitable next stage in the evolution of their industry, rather than a proactive IT or technology strategy. However, thinking of the smart factory like any other business transformation project encourages a starting point of what is our business trying to achieve?
From there, it is far easier to pin down what kind of data will ideally be captured by the smart factory, and what kind of insights and actions that data could drive. And since the smart factory is, at its core, all about capturing and harnessing data, this is the best way of ensuring a smart factory that is closely aligned with business goals, and a smart factory whose success can be easily evaluated.
Five key stages
Once you have confirmed your success criteria, all operational smart factories, no matter what their precise technological setup, scale and scope, should ultimately follow five practical steps:
- Implant sensors to capture data, whether through retrofitting existing equipment or installing all-new hardware.
- Create an architecture to consolidate and analyse that information, with coping with the different protocols between all equipment using Kepware and comprehensive network security throughout.
- Deploy an Industrial Innovation Platform such our Thingworx platform, which can process big data from the equipment and business systems and transform it into meaningful, actionable intelligence.
- Put in place the mechanisms and processes to use those insights to drive tangible business actions.
- Augment and improve the smart factory, with processes like AI and machine learning so that your IoT investment is maximised on an ongoing basis.
However, those five key steps do not need to be applied across your entire organisation all in one go. In fact, from a cost-efficiency and ease of project management perspective, it is normally sensible to work on making disparate parts of the factory ‘smart’ at different times.
Work from the inside out
Your people will always be key to making the smart factory an ongoing success. You need to spend time explaining your objectives and listening to and engaging them on the journey. The project cannot get off the ground without technology alone. As such, the most logical approach to developing a smart factory begins with people and the business case and then moves to the equipment. Why are you doing this? How will this affect the team? Who will be responsible for this new approach after you have implemented? Will it change the way your people are rewarded? Do they have the right skillsets? How will the human/machine collaboration work in your smart factory?
Only then do you get onto the technology. Where do you need to retrofit existing hardware, and where will you install brand new equipment? How do you cope with the many proprietary protocols? Which centralised analytics engine is most appropriate for your goals – today and into the future? How can you maximise the useful lifespan of all the hardware on your factory floor, via a predictive maintenance programme? . And from there, you can extend your smart factory out beyond your manufacturing premises, to consider your supply chain and logistics.