IBM’s vision of the connected factory

IBM is helping to provide the technology backbone to deliver the smart factory. At Digital Manufacturing Week, Joe Bush caught up with Remy Mandon VP of Industrial Sector and Euan Pirie, Client Technical Leader, IBM, to find out more.

Watch the full interview here

Interview highlights

Connected manufacturing, sustainability and transformation are three key topics that are on the agenda of manufacturers today. Each will form a key pillar in the smart factory of tomorrow and will shape the way it looks as well as the way it is run.

Where are each of these three key manufacturing topics on the road to maturity?

RM: Connected manufacturing is pretty far advanced, and there has been plenty of integration between IT and OT processes already. Manufacturers are monitoring overall equipment effectiveness, the mean time to repair and so on. So, in terms of IT/OT integration and the performance of plants and equipment we have already come a long way.

As far as sustainability is concerned, it’s an area that is maturing, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be in the future. Right now, companies are predominantly trying to tackle sustainability in a sense of reducing the energy costs of their operations.

EP: What’s really interesting is that when we did our manufacturers survey last year, sustainability was quite low down on the agenda. But that’s really turned on its head this year, receiving a lot more attention, particularly after COP26.

Within a manufacturing environment, who is taking responsibility for these key elements of digitalisation?

RM: Currently we’re talking to heads of manufacturing, engineering, maintenance etc. Sustainability is a completely different agenda within organisations, but it’s still a key line of business and is being tackled from the top down. Boards are asking each team within the manufacturing line to prove they can be more sustainable within their operations.

How do these topics move from theory to reality?

RM: All manufacturers are looking for quick wins, and are looking at equipment and solutions to deliver them – to enhance overall equipment effectiveness, produce more with better quality, enable products to be manufactured as designed, and prove to authorities that this can be done in the right way. That’s the anchor to the reality.

Secondly, there’s a lot of manufacturers that have specific processes. So we help them run discovery workshops – we work with the engineers on the shop floor and in the field, on things that can be improved and processes that can be done differently. We work with them to build minimum viable products, change and improve operations within the plant – from there we can move to the next level, deliver quick wins and scale.

EP: Everybody tends to get stuck in proof of concepts and pilots etc. And nobody really thinks about the production scalability from the beginning. That is a really important point. When we’re looking at Industry 4.0 connected manufacturing, we really need to be thinking about how to scale, how to productionise and how to get the real benefits across all the different elements of the business.

What is IBM currently doing in this space?

RM: As far as our software is concerned, we are providing solutions for specific use cases that can deliver the quick wins that manufacturers are looking for. We have a solution called Maximo Application Suite which can monitor equipment effectiveness, asset health, asset performance, and visual inspection. And these kind of quick wins can already be delivered as part of a standard product. We are also working with customers in the field on things which are not necessarily already coded in the software. Something else which IBM brings to the table is that we are open source.

EP: We’ve been working very closely with a number of providers on collaboration. IBM provides the core platform, and we enable the agility of partners and SMEs to deliver on top of that.

Can you explain a little more about IBM’s 5G Factory of the Future programme?

EP: I’ve been involved in 5G Factory of the Future in conjunction with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre Northwest, BAE Systems, NTT who are providing some data and edge capability, and AQL who are providing the 5G network provision.

It’s part of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport 5G Testbed and Trials Programme, and it’s the largest of all of the testbed trials. We’ve been working on it since August last year and we’ve got another year to go. We’re working through a number of use cases to test out 5G and edge in manufacturing. It’s progressing really well and it’s an exciting project to be involved in.

What will be the long-term benefits of technology on the road to digitalisation?

EP: If we look at how a company is going to deploy these emerging technologies, 5G works in combination with edge, and edge works in combination with AI. So 5G is the network transport, edge is the ability to interpret and manage the data that comes from the shop floor, and AI is the enabler that really gives us the benefits. It’s the combination of those three technologies that’s really going to help manufacturing moving forward.

RM: A prime example is that, in the past, a manufacturer would send data to the cloud and perform analytics. Now that process has been completely reversed. Because of the increasing number of data points, data resides at the edge (where it is being collected). So IBM bring AI analytics to the edge – where the data can be analysed and AI models can be performed – so that performance improvements can be done on the shop floor, and decisions can be made where the data resides. It saves money and is better in terms of security and performance, so we are going to see a lot of benefits on the shop floor – it’s all about real-time decision making.


IBM was one of many companies at this years Digital Manufacturing Week. Take a look back over some of the main highlights of Smart Factory Expo