Clearing the hurdles to smart manufacturing success

4 mins read

By Nick McGrane, managing director at K3 SYSPRO

There has been a lot of talk lately about smart manufacturing, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). However, now it is time to act, as changing consumer demands like the expectation of products always being available is shifting the manufacturing landscape.

Adapting to these changes naturally takes time and careful planning. Manufacturers need to look at ways of improving processes and adding agility, while crucially reducing costs. It is these very benefits however, that Industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing offers. Smart manufacturing is a state of manufacturing that is achieved by adopting AI, ML and data analytics to assist in and optimize manufacturing processes. At the core of a smart factory is consistent data collection and real-time visibility, resulting in more transparency and better control. This ultimately translates into better connectivity across departments, the enablement of data-driven decision making and driving efficiencies across the enterprise as the organisation becomes aligned and interoperable.

However, while the benefits of transformation are clear, making the changes that are needed can appear difficult to make. The delay in implementation can be pinned down to three barriers, that while challenging can be overcome with the right planning and tool set. So to move to smart manufacturing it is important to understand the barriers and how they can be overcome:

  • The talent gap

It may sound strange to talk about the talent gap and automation, as the perception is often that automation limits the number of tasks human workers are needed for, which creates a huge pool of talent to draw upon. In reality the opposite is true. Digital transformation and the move to smart manufacturing is creating jobs at a faster pace than skilled workers are entering the workforce. This has created a global talent shortage resulting in 54% of businesses finding it more difficult to attract talent than it did two years ago.

For manufacturing, this is particularly tricky as it is seen as a less exciting career path for AI expertise and data analytics leaders to enter into. This can be overcome though, by having a clear talent management strategy in place. Promoting the high tech story of a business will help attract new talent, while training also has a big role to play. In fact, training has been shown to not only boost skills but also increase morale and staff retention too. Whatsmore, a happy workforce is often a more efficient one as teams look to collaborate much closer.

  • Upfront Investment

Along with talent, capital too can be a major barrier, with businesses often seeing costs as too high. At the same time, there are also worries around the disruption it creates too. Taking advantage of smart manufacturing though does not need to include a full rip and replace of systems.

Enter low-cost Industry 4.0. Taking a low-cost approach to Industry 4.0 means maximising the technology that is already available to a business throughout its supply chain. This can all be enabled via an Industry 4.0 Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. By connecting existing technology with an intelligent and evolving ERP system, manufacturers can feel the benefit across their entire business and supply chain. On top of this, funding is now available too from the UK government. Having recently announced £300 million in investments to manufacturers to support them through transformation programmes, access to investment should no longer be the barrier it once was.

  • Leadership structure

While funding and talent shortage has held back adoption of smart manufacturing, perhaps the biggest barrier of all is the leadership structure. Without the right leadership teams and processes in place, solving the first two barriers will be difficult and a successful move to smart manufacturing has a higher chance of failure.

To help those in leadership positions across the business, it is important to establish a learning culture and invest in training early on. Surrounding leaders and decision-makers with the right team of technology experts that understand the business and know how to leverage the right solutions to achieve the desired results is key. One way to do this is by creating a committee of key stakeholders with clearly defined roles and KPIs to measure success. Taking this approach shares the ownership burden and improves the overall project process.

The barriers of talent shortages, funding and leadership structure, while not small challenges are solvable problems and should not block access to the benefits on offer. Once the barriers have been dealt with, manufacturers can begin to explore the new possibilities on offer.

With ERP systems that enable low-cost Industry 4.0 for example, businesses can enjoy better insights and more accurate real-time information along all customer touchpoints; information that can be acted upon instantly. For example using a state of the art ERP system improves key areas like supply chain traceability. Traceability is an especially important area to improve as issues can be prevented from spreading across other areas of the supply chain and manufacturing process. Thanks to better insights business can react quickly and decisively when needed, which helps lower costs and maintain operational efficiencies.

Further savings too can be found from the benefits of improved processes that eliminate issues such as variability and human error. Freeing teams from more manual processes helps them to up-level their skills and allows them to get more involved in decision-making processes, which further supports business leaders. Smart manufacturing therefore, not only helps unlock the agility businesses needed but also lays the foundations for long-term, sustainable success. Without access to the digital tools on offer, businesses risk being surpassed by their competitors and failing to meet customer demands.

The world is changing quicker than ever before, and having the tools, team and technology ready for this will be the key to unlocking sustainable, long term success.