When we talk about smart manufacturing, we’re really talking about data. Agility, resilience, adaptability, speed – these are all outcomes of smarter manufacturing but what is actually driving all those improvements? It’s information. It’s data.

In the past few years, modern businesses have faced disruption, increased competition, and unprecedented changes to consumer demands and expectations. But instead of being daunted, the best businesses are now using information to help them grow and thrive. Gathering and analyzing customer data helps businesses spot trends and risks and manage them on the fly. Digitally connecting all manufacturing machines and operations into a single AI-powered system, provides real-time access to global data from all departments – from R&D to assembly lines. And the ability to analyze and gain meaningful insights from all that cloud-based data helps modern manufacturers take on the competition – and even see around a corner or two.

What is smart manufacturing?

The NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) defines smart manufacturing as: “fully-integrated, collaborative manufacturing systems that respond in real time to meet changing demands and conditions in the factory, in the supply network, and in customer needs”.

Smart manufacturing is grounded in cloud connectivity. It is a combination of human creativity, digitally connected machines and assets, and AI-powered systems and analytics. The integration of AI and smart tools helps fuel adaptability and speeds up the capacity to customize outputs based upon real-time data and intel. The visibility, agility, and resilience of smart manufacturing makes it a cornerstone of more efficient supply chain models and overall business operations.

Industry 4.0 manufacturing

Industry 4.0 refers to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The word “Revolution” is used because each Industrial Revolution has been powered by some kind of game-changing technology or invention that “revolutionized” the entire industrial world. The First Industrial Revolution used steam; the Second, the assembly line; the Third was driven by computing power; and the Fourth is powered by digital technologies and connectivity.

The best manufacturers often have millions of dollars and hours invested into machinery and assets that are highly specialized and expertly engineered for their unique product output. The beauty of smart manufacturing is that it’s not about tearing down traditional factories and replacing them with something else. It’s about smartening up existing factories step by step and augmenting them with Industry 4.0 manufacturing tools and solutions to reach their manufacturing goals more efficiently and effectively.

Automated manufacturing vs. autonomous manufacturing

Automated manufacturing is nothing new. It simply refers to robotic devices that are programmed with the sole purpose of performing a specific action. Most often, these repetitive tasks occur in concert with other machines and humans in an environment such as an assembly line. Automation is essential in delivering the speed and accuracy needed for high-volume manufacturing.

Autonomous manufacturing is basically just automated manufacturing…with a brain. Using Industry 4.0 technologies like AI and machine learning, a smart manufacturing system and the IoT devices within it, capture disparate data sets like consumer feedback, supply and demand, machine capacity, and any other relevant information. Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms can then be applied to those data sets to deliver – and automatically enact – more efficient and optimized workflows and processes.

Smart manufacturing implementation: Next steps

Some businesses have already traveled quite far down the path of digital transformation, integrating a wide range of Industry 4.0 technologies into their operations. Others are just getting started with their journey or wondering where they should start.

The good news is that smart manufacturing solutions don’t all have to come on board at once. The most successful industrial transformations start with good communication and the breaking down of silos. By communicating with your staff early on, you can learn where your operational strengths and weaknesses are right now. You can also get important insights as to the whereabouts of low-hanging fruit and where your best starting points might be.

And before your journey begins, be sure to put together solid communication and change management strategies to make sure that your most important manufacturing asset – your team – is enthusiastic and informed about the improvements to come.

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