The Smartest “Things” In Your Factory

We’ve discussed the recent growth in focus on manufacturing technologies in our blog post on Smart Manufacturing vs Digital Manufacturing. Today, I want to focus on Smart Manufacturing.


With so much of the focus in new manufacturing technologies being placed on Smart machines, it’s important to remember that smartest “things” in factories today are the people, and despite all the hype around robots and digitization, people will always be a major part of manufacturing operations.


In their recently published roadmap, CESMII says that  “[Smart Manufacturing] enables the right technology to be available at the right time and in the right form to the right people, powering smart decision-making within factories and across entire value chains.”  So let’s consider who the “right people” are.  Classically, information systems in manufacturing have been very focused on process control, and the operator interactions with the manufacturing process have been governed by a process control paradigm.  The capabilities of these manufacturing technologies have been limited by the broader technology & software landscape, while a particular company’s adoption of them has been limited by financial constraints, or forced upon them by regulatory requirements.  Regardless, people work in these production environments every day in a variety of capacities producing goods productively enough to stay in business.  The information produced by these classic technologies have generally fallen into two categories:

  • Operators are presented with and required to enter the data required to perform a specific operation, often as defined by a process or industrial engineer in cooperation with the IT team and consultants.
  • Management is presented with a variety of transaction data from these classic systems about productivity, throughput, quality, yield, compliance, etc. This data is typically summarized into dashboards or daily reports that show how the operations are performing against the pre-defined expectations.


We have effectively operated this way since the 1970’s and the 3rd Industrial revolution. Sure, we’ve experienced incremental improvements along the way as computing has evolved and gotten cheaper, but we haven’t truly seen a sea change in how these production systems operate.


So as we enter what is being called “Industry 4.0”, the era of cyber-physical systems, I believe we need to take the opportunity to look at the entire landscape of opportunity to a truly revolutionary arsenal of technology to get information in the “right form to the right people, powering smart decision-making within factories” as CESMII describes.


Let’s talk about the “right people”.  For too long the decision making about productivity improvements has been left solely to management.   In most environments, management reviews their reports, decides on changes to the process, and then rolls them out through changes to their control system. These classic systems make input from and participation by the actual operators very challenging.  What we see as the biggest immediate opportunity in Smart Manufacturing is to engage your operators collaboratively in reviewing not just what your existing transaction data an metrics say, but what the fact-based observations about your physical operations have to say.  Our experience has shown that when management and the team that actually performs the works can sit together and review a fact-based set of data about their operations, the identification of opportunities for improvement and simple quick changes to boost productivity is easy to spot and agree upon.


Empowering the team of operators to provide input on how things can improve, and even on what information would be useful to collect and analyze, is long overdue.  Our advice is to focus your preliminary Smart Manufacturing efforts leveraging the smartest assets in your factory today – your workforce.


Rob Schoenthaler

Founder & CEO, Atollogy