Avoiding Pitfalls In Your Smart Manufacturing Implementation

I am the Managing Director of Arvense Group, a firm that helps engineering and manufacturing companies become more competitive.

Smart manufacturing is all the buzz. In recent years, the costs of implementing smart manufacturing technologies have fallen significantly. I’ve found that this has benefited many manufacturing companies; however, it has come with an unintended consequence. Now the threshold for approving a new project is much lower in the organization. This can create a decentralized, scattered implementation approach, resulting in a suite of tools that aren’t aligned or connected. 

Countless articles can tell you how to find providers for artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and automation, data analytics and more. Many say to start slow and build up. Just as many articles advocate rebuilding an entire factory, if not the whole enterprise. What is missing in most of these articles is the concept of planning your long-term road map.  

Hopefully, with this article, you will gain a new perspective on how to create a successful implementation plan.  

What is the end game?  

It is easy to become excited with the plethora of smart manufacturing opportunities. Before diving in and starting to look at areas you can add AI, automate or collect data, first take some time to determine the primary objective. What is the most pressing problem(s) you are working to solve? Is it manpower, quality, efficiency, cost or competitiveness? Taking time early on to identify the primary drivers will focus your team and your organization on the right priorities and save countless hours later. Upon defining the problem, your team can start researching various smart solutions to apply.  

How will the data from each of these implementations be collected and analyzed in a central area? How will the findings from the data be redistributed back to the machines and workforce? Not having a well-defined end objective can quickly lead to quite a messy situation. A solid plan guiding the work will avoid many of the pitfalls of random, scattered implementations. 

A plan should provide four key benefits.  

1. Optimized Resource Utilization: Most companies have limited resources in both financial and human capital. A plan assists by providing consistent evaluation criteria to determine if proposed projects should be approved based on their contribution to achieving the end goal. This is key to having your resources working on the highest priorities and understanding how their actions contribute to the overall goal.  

2. Prioritization: Prioritizing projects is typically based on customer requirements, return on investment (ROI), quality issues or other organizational initiatives like continuous improvement. The first question should be, “How does implementing this project advance us toward the overall goal of smart manufacturing?” Key criteria should be established early on for proposed solutions’ compatibility with other project solutions. This assists in avoiding the later workarounds to establish system connectivity, communications and utilizing data for decision making.  

3. Organizational Alignment: Organization-wide communications can be challenging. Each area of the business has its priorities for the objectives it needs to deliver. Having a strong plan communicated throughout the organization keeps all business units aligned so projects being implemented for smart manufacturing are working to the primary goals. Strong alignment reduces waste through complementary technologies, eliminating incompatible systems, duplicated efforts and miscommunications.  

4. Connectivity: One of the cornerstones of smart manufacturing is a connected enterprise. Establishing a strong, connected system with automated messaging, data distribution and business metrics is a key factor for a successful smart manufacturing initiative. Often systems become fragmented over time, making it difficult to work in the existing infrastructure. Without a plan guiding the systems’ infrastructure, there is a high potential for incompatible systems and an inability to share data. Having an overall plan includes how innovative solutions will be incorporated to minimize this fragmentation and lack of connectivity. 

Well-defined goals for the business are essential for all to be working toward a common result. Of equal importance, a well-designed and coordinated plan for each area of the business to follow will mitigate the risk of implementing incompatible solutions.  

Planning is not a new concept. However, with modern technology, a frenzy of ideas and multiple proposals on how to implement, it can be easy to forget the basics. Using the basic principle of having a plan can significantly contribute to the success of your smart manufacturing journey, from the initial stages to the advanced, smart factory.  

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