As these technologies mature, every step of the manufacturing process and its supply chain is becoming connected and streamlined - the challenge for manufacturers however is to be able to unlock and exploit the data that is becoming available to them.

Why is data so important?

Smart factories are enabled by intensive use of data and associated analytics that allow operators to become more collaborative and responsive. This is why capturing and analysing complex data is key to the success of establishing a smart factory.Giving each manufacturer a competitive edge it involves far more than simply buying in the latest smart devices.

How can Big Data help manufacturers?

Access to often complex data sets allows operational costs, especially stockholding and maintenance costs, to be minimised. Manufacturers can also use it to improve productivity, identifying where improvements can be made to transform their business.

According to recent research from Orbis Research, for example, machine downtime is responsible for 20% of total manufacturing losses but this can be reduced to around 4% by using smart manufacturing technologies such as automated PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) systems.

What data is available from the factory floor?

Every part of the manufacturing process, from components or ingredients to the finished product, is capable of creating vast amounts of data. The key is connecting and integrating the data sets so that they can be analysed to provide valuable insights that will effect changes in manufacturing and business processes.

There is a growing number of internet-enabled devices in the manufacturing workspace, such as networked sensors and devices, while the use of Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) and Near Field Communication (NFC) is becoming widespread throughout the supply chain for tracking and monitoring individual components and products as they move through the production process.

This allows for a far greater exchange of data within and between manufacturing systems, and between companies and operations along the supply chain.

It is coupling these vast and readily available data sets with applications such as product lifecycle management (PLM), manufacturing execution systems (MES), enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and business intelligence technology that gives manufacturers an opportunity to reap the real benefits of a smart factory.

These applications can turn hundreds of smaller insights into a handful of big insights, helping manufacturers clearly see what to focus on to improve performance, increase productivity and reduce cost.

For example, the root cause of failures can be identified in real-time (small insight), while the ability to predict the wear rate of rotating machine parts (big insight) allows maintenance to be scheduled for when it will have minimal impact on output.

What do manufacturers need to do?

To exploit the power of Big Data both ingenuity and innovation are needed.

Even small and medium enterprises can benefit from the application of Big Data, cloud manufacturing and other related systems to support their agile manufacturing objectives; however, they need to recognise that the biggest barrier is cost, not the inability to change.

Implementing smart manufacturing may require a significant change in management strategy and operational culture, with investment not just in technology but also staff retraining and possibly redeployment. By starting with the development of a smart manufacturing strategy, companies can identify where investment needs to be made, what impact it will have on the business and whether a change in business culture will be required to facilitate as smooth an implementation as possible.

For the true power of technological transformation to be considered as a friend by manufacturers, they need to embrace Industry 4.0 and become ‘digital champions.’

For more information, the MPA whitepaper ‘Unleash the Power of the Smart Factory’ is available as a free download here.

Visit their website to find out how MPA could help support your business: mpa.co.uk