How to Build Your Smart Factory Strategy

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Estimated read time: Eight minutes

Smart manufacturing is the future of the entire industry. If you want to reach that future without straying off the path or ending up somewhere else entirely, you’re going to need a map — a smart factory strategy.

But what is this strategy supposed to look like? Is there one perfect way every manufacturer should do things, or do you need to personalize each step to meet your plant’s needs? How are you supposed to make a roadmap into the future, anyway?

Not to worry — we’re here to help. Read on to find out everything you need to know to build a smart factory strategy that will guide and support your digital transformation.

Do you really need a smart factory strategy?

There’s a time and place for figuring things out as you go along, and a smart factory initiative is not it. That’s because guesswork, assumptions and improvisation are like putting a bandage over a gaping wound: They may look like a solution at first glance, but they can’t get you to the root of real manufacturing issues. Worse yet, you’ll miss out on some of the most important benefits of smart manufacturing overall.

For this reason, it’s important to resist the temptation to jump in with both feet, potentially causing over-investment without ROI. Instead, take the implementation process one step at a time.

First things first: You need to find out what you’re actually implementing.

A smart factory runs on many of the same ideals that guide traditional plants, but the difference is that those ideals are optimized and empowered by data, automation, artificial intelligence and more. It doesn’t happen overnight; the process is like assembling a puzzle — but instead of tiny pieces, you’re putting manufacturing technology together to create the smart factory vision. It's like your very own industrial revolution.

A similar but not synonymous term is “smart manufacturing,” which refers to digitized operations and the technologies guiding them. Put simply, smart manufacturing is the approach, and a smart factory is a plant utilizing that approach.

When it comes to your strategy, smart manufacturing is the foundation. It should help with early steps in the implementation process, including:

  • Identifying and setting goals: To create a smart factory that feels like your factory, you’ll need to spend some time brainstorming goals. What do you want your future to look like? Which manufacturing challenges, production issues, supply chain inefficiencies or other frustrations do you hope to overcome?

  • Understanding your strengths and weaknesses: Digital transformation doesn’t mean trashing all the progress you’ve made thus far. Instead, identify your strengths and build your smart factory strategy around them. It’s also important to note where your weaknesses are so you know how to target them when it comes time to choose smart factory technology.

  • Knowing what to expect: Smart manufacturing should be optimistic yet realistic. Understand what this approach has to offer so you can determine what’s really in the realm of possibility (like optimized processes) and what’s probably never going to happen (like perfection). 

Once you have the basics down, it’s time to start building your own smart factory strategy. To do that, you’ll need to take three steps — and those steps involve technology, people and evolution.

Let’s take a closer look.

Step #1: Get savvy about smart factory technologies

When you hear about digitized, advanced manufacturing, you may imagine a factory that’s “all tech, all the time.” However, that’s not the case. In fact, that approach to a smart manufacturing initiative can cause a whole lot of trouble.

The reality is that no technology is necessary unless it helps solve a specific problem. If there’s no opportunity for a stronger process, a boost in efficiency or an increase in ROI, tech deployment is just performative. That’s not smart manufacturing — it’s a wasteful habit dressed up and pretending to be smart manufacturing.

When you approach smart factory technology as a specific solution to specific problems, you’ll see better results. Here are a few ways to build that into your smart factory strategy:

Think about big data

Smart manufacturing technology gives you the capability to capture data quickly and efficiently, which means you’ll have a whole lot of it — and that’s where “big data,” or huge data sets, come into play. 

Used correctly, data can help a manufacturer achieve operational excellence; however, used incorrectly, data can quickly get out of hand and eat up time in capture, storage and retrieval while providing precious few insights.

The key is to be ready for big data when it shows up on the horizon. Create a smart factory strategy that focuses on the effective utilization and analysis of asset, operational and process data rather than just hoarding it like a dragon hoards gold. This requires two things:

  • Understanding the type, amount and accuracy of the data you’ll have access to, which will far exceed what you could capture with traditional manufacturing techniques (all thanks to smart sensors, data analytics, machine learning and other digital manufacturing tools).

  • Compiling this data from multiple sources across your factory to create one cohesive, easily accessible view of the truth.

Put existing tech to good use

A smart factory solution doesn’t always require brand-new technology. Instead, it might guide you in the effective utilization of existing tools — like, for example, mobile devices. By empowering people on your factory floor to capture data without interrupting their task or manufacturing process, you take advantage of familiar technology to get a better, more complete view of what’s actually happening in your manufacturing plant.

Don't get complacent about security

When your whole plant uses automation and artificial intelligence casually, it’s easy to start looking at that tech like any other tool. The truth is that smart factory technology, for all its strengths, can still be vulnerable to security issues like unrestricted access or data theft. It’s up to you to outsmart those digital dangers — so think ahead and build security processes and tools into your smart factory strategy.

Step #2: Involve your people in the smart factory vision

Although technology is a key part of any smart factory, it can’t function all alone. Data from sensors or integrated systems is only as good as its ability to trigger the appropriate action — like changing a process, bringing materials, choosing which problem to focus on and more. Since these are human tasks, it makes sense that smart manufacturing needs to empower people, not replace them.

To do this, you’ll need a few key approaches in your smart factory strategy:

  • Create value for workers: People are the innovators, problem-solvers and creative thinkers of your factory. Each smart factory solution should be designed to create real value for workers, whether in the form of accessible data, meaningful insights, better tools or smoother processes.

  • Make tools practical: Employees need to be comfortable with smart manufacturing technology. If your systems and tools are too difficult to use, people won’t actually use them — and that, of course, defeats the purpose. Make sure your smart factory strategy emphasizes intuitive, user-friendly approaches that fit the needs and expectations of the modern worker.

  • Bring people together: Like the supply chain itself, your factory is full of moving parts. When those “parts” are people, it’s especially important to make sure they’re all working together. For example, your smart factory strategy should be designed to keep IT and Operations teams on the same page, helping Operations communicate their needs and allowing IT to identify the specific tech solutions that can help without introducing new obstacles.

Step #3: Build evolution into your smart factory strategies

The final, and perhaps most important, part of your smart factory strategy is evolution. The last thing you want to do is create a roadmap that locks you into a certain approach or discourages further innovation. Instead, keep in mind that a smart factory should be in a constant state of growth. It’s a journey, not a destination. 

Here are a few ways to build evolution into the DNA of your smart factory strategy:

  • Leave space for creativity: Although tools like automation make it easy to standardize each production process, that doesn’t mean you have to get stuck in a rut. Allow yourself and your teams to experiment with smart manufacturing and potentially find even better ways to do things (which can give you a significant competitive advantage).

  • Learn from yourself: If you happen to make a big breakthrough in one department or factory location, don’t let it go to waste. Build your smart factory approach with an eye toward sharing information across your organization and creating a new best practice. 

  • Evolve organically: As you get more comfortable with smart factory technology, you’ll find that evolution doesn’t have to be a constant focus. Instead, you should be able to use new insights to pivot, improving processes and eliminating inefficiencies naturally.

The smart factory foundation you need

To bring all three steps together and create a solid smart factory strategy, you need to know a few things:

  • Where to start.

  • Which goals to pursue.

  • Which tech tools to use.

  • In which direction you should evolve.

Answering these questions requires visibility, and visibility requires the right data. The L2L manufacturing platform creates that foundation, creating insights and putting data at your fingertips so you can achieve your smart factory goals. In many ways, having the right platform is the first step toward smart manufacturing excellence.

Ready to take that step? Book a demo today and find out how our platform can help build your strategy.

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Kevin Bryan

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