As technology enhances and most systems are becoming increasingly digitalised and streamlined, many sectors are having to make changes to keep up with industry trends. Smart factories are quickly becoming one of the main solutions to this as they offer increased automation for manufacturers and put organisations in good stead when it comes to increasing productivity, staying ahead of competitors and keeping up with customer demands.
But what exactly is a smart factory and what changes can the industry expect to see in coming years? The National Institute of Standards and Technology describe smart factories as a “fully integrated and collaborative manufacturing system that responds in real-time to meet the changing demands and conditions in factories, supply network, and customer needs.”
Many manufacturers have already identified the need for change and are beginning the journey toward implementing the smart factory concept. However, making the jump from a traditional factory, to a high-tech smart factory may not seem financially viable for smaller businesses.
In this article, Mosca explains and discusses the elements of forward-thinking technology that SMEs can adopt and the benefits they offer.
Introducing a combination of digital technologies into factories, warehouses and production environments, such as artificial intelligence and automation, provides a range of benefits, such as increased process efficiency, product quality, sustainability and decreased costs. So, just how can small businesses utilise certain technologies and digital systems to stay ahead of the game when it comes to updating current systems and implementing a smart factory?
Although updating technology and investing in new systems seems quite daunting and involves some quite hefty upfront costs, the benefits discussed earlier, such as increased productivity and process efficiency alone are worth considering the transition to a smart factory. Think of it as the same concept as investing in an electric vehicle – although the upfront costs are higher than that of a conventional car, in the long run it is likely you will end up saving money on running costs and maintenance as well as have access to various grants to help with financial support.
The government has a scheme set up which allows businesses to apply for funding to support projects that use digital technology to improve the productivity and agility of UK manufacturing, so this is an option worth exploring for SMEs looking to upgrade their factory to a smart one.
SMEs should initially consider business priorities rather than focusing on updating and disitalising all systems in one go. It will be simpler, as well as more cost effective to focus on each business goal and update and enhance technology in a manner that makes sense to your business. Below are five main business goals in which SMEs can use smart factory integrations to enhance their operations:
- Enhanced resource planning
A main priority for many businesses is enhancing their ability to manage resources; for connected factories to have the ability to track the location of labour, materials, machines, and moveable assets in real time. If offering greater visibility across your business to ensure the right volume of materials are in stock or on order at any given time in one of your goals, then investing in resource planning system should be your first step in transitioning to a smart factory.
There are many software solutions out there that help with aspects such as resource and material requirement planning and are an ideal place for most companies to start making the transition – particularly SMEs.
- Compliance and traceability
Traceability eliminates unforeseen issues and saves time and money and for businesses without dedicated tools and processes in place: dealing with traceability queries can soon become time-consuming.
In some cases, the inability to show evidence of origin or use can quickly escalate into a more pressing business issue. Having the ability to track forward and back with certainty is very important, especially as manufacturers are facing increasing pressure to prove that the materials they produce meet a range of quality standards and are ethically sourced.
Traceability extends far past being concerned with goods in, goods out and how something is made because technology has brought consumers far more power than ever before. So investing in a supply chain and traceability focused software solution should definitely be considered.
- Optimised processes
Managers have to make sense of a lot of information which is fed into systems from all arms of an organisation, and this can be a very time consuming process. Business intelligence dashboards have the ability to consolidate data and provide greater insight – definitely an option worth exploring if your business goals compromise optimising processes.
This kind of software solution helps in identifying areas of improvement, such as removing production bottlenecks and supports in processing orders more efficiently in comparison to the conventional way. This is done using scheduling and planning systems to identify the impact of schedule changes and planning different scenarios; answering the ‘what if’ questions, or ‘can we take on this rush order?’
- Increased productivity in back-office functions
Back-office functions are often a last thought, especially when the Management team are dedicated to and passionate about perfecting a product or service. But the importance of streamlining admin work should not be overlooked. It might seem more worthwhile to invest in machinery that increases production, but a digital system that will automate time-consuming admin tasks such as searching for information, data or documents and verifying that data, chasing people for review and sign off and other tasks such as time sheets is also very beneficial.
As well as taking up a lot of time, these avoidable tasks also mean that mistakes happen, human errors occur and products are delivered late as staff are often time pressured. Investing in a cloud based software solution can ensure a more efficient approach, allowing workers to spend more time on their core tasks.
- Increased sales through stronger customer relationships
For those whose main priority is increasing sales through a stronger customer base, integrating a customer relationship management (CRM) system with an ERP allows manufacturers to identify sales trends and anticipate orders, liaise with clients as well as ensure forecast demand can be fulfilled. Software solutions which incorporate the technology from Industry 4.0 will allow more accurate and open communications, helping businesses to build and maintain rapport with their clients.
A digital system will also allow people within the business to collaborate on projects online meaning you can automatically notify customers on the progress of their orders.