The smart factory of the future

Posted on 31 Aug 2023 by The Manufacturer

Digital innovations are evolving and converging at an incredible pace and this trend will continue for decades. The combination of data, AI, automation and other advanced technologies are shaping the future of manufacturing, particularly the shift to smart manufacturing which has accelerated over the last few years.

Business leaders are beginning to recognise the many benefits of adopting the latest manufacturing technologies but are conscious that they need a skilled workforce with in-depth technical knowledge to recognise and realise their true potential.

To stay ahead of the curve, manufacturers must prioritise investing in appropriate smart factory solutions, alongside implementing relevant training programmes, to ensure their staff are equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to excel in their roles.

What is a smart factory?

At the heart of smart manufacturing is the smart factory. Making a factory truly ‘smart’ depends on its ability to react almost immediately to fast-changing consumer demand for speed and product customisation. This means it will need to have the talent and the technology in place to enact fast, flexible and agile production at scale, and in line with customers’ unique requirements.

The data that AI analyses from factory equipment connected to IoT sensors enables manufacturers to intelligently predict machinery maintenance requirements, reducing downtime on the shop floor. This data, in tandem with AI, also enables more efficient quality control and compliance processes by automatically identifying defects and anomalies before a product reaches the end of the manufacturing line.

AI-powered collaborative robots, known as ‘cobots’ can also work alongside humans in both the factory and the warehouse to perform any repetitive or dangerous manual labour-intensive tasks with precision and speed, increasing efficiency, reducing errors, and improving factory safety.

By automating production processes and connected ERP solutions, manufacturers can ensure that business units are no longer operating in silos thanks to insights gathered from their supply chain and inventory. Standardisation and consistency can lead to competitive advantages, as AI-enabled solutions are able to generate faster and more accurate business predictions.

At the core of it all is connectivity, with IoT set to play a fundamental role in how it facilitates networks of devices, sensors, and systems across the entire smart factory. Workers can use the collected data to monitor each area of the production line in real-time, improve decision-making, enhance supply chain management, and optimise resource allocation – meaning stronger resilience and higher profit margins.

Barriers to adoption

Implementing smart factory technologies does require proactive investment in infrastructure, equipment, software, and people. Workforces will need to adapt to using new systems and solutions, so companies must organise relevant training programmes to ensure they’re equipped with the right digital skillsets for the job.

Businesses may also need to look outside their existing talent pool and invest in hiring people who already have some experience working with the latest tools and technologies. As a result, some smaller businesses with fewer resources may get left behind in the race to adopt and implement.

As smart factories become more prevalent, another obstacle will be standardising operational processes and data across different systems, platforms and business units. Both in their own company and externally across any partners they may be working with. Without a seamless integration of standards, protocols, and formatting, it will prove difficult for companies to truly see the benefits of any new technologies they’re implementing.

Despite this, a rise in robotics and AI will mean monotonous, repetitive, or dangerous manual tasks can increasingly be automated and undertaken by machines. This means fewer workers will be physically required on the shop floor and can be directed to other areas of the company – such as customer engagement or employee-led learning and development – to add more value.

Transforming the supply chain

Smart factory technologies will also transform the visibility, efficiency, and resilience of connected supply chains globally. Powerful new technologies enable real-time monitoring of inventory and production data, meaning that stakeholders, manufacturers, and distributors across the entire supply chain can all be kept up to date with the latest information.

Another benefit of continuous monitoring is quality control, as products can be analysed automatically for faults or defects throughout the entire manufacturing process. Production managers can be immediately notified from any remote location with an internet connection, so any issues can be immediately rectified, reducing costs for re-manufacturing and re-design – improving the end-customer experience.

Data that’s collected by smart factory technologies not only enhances transparency across the supply chain but allows manufacturing businesses to better forecast demand and potential supply chain disruptions. This enables manufacturers to be more agile, so they can quickly adjust their production and delivery schedules, accordingly, reducing delays and improving overall supply chain efficiency.

Shaping the deployment of smart factories

Looking forward, partnerships between different stakeholder groups across industries will be pivotal to smart factory deployment. It isn’t a case of ‘one solution fits all’, and only effective collaboration can support the development of industry-specific smart factory solutions.

While manufacturers and distributors can provide expertise and knowledge of their respective sectors, technology providers will need to share learnings on how to best bring solutions to market that are tailored for specific industries.

Any concerns related to security, talent, privacy, and compliance can be shared with policymakers and regulatory groups creating standards and codes of conduct for widespread implementation across different industries. Throughout the process, any challenges that arise can be discussed to drive research and development into future smart factory technologies, ensuring continuous innovation.

Setting up manufacturers for success

For manufacturers considering making the switch, they must first tactically invest in a comprehensive digital transformation strategy that’s tailored to their industry and be prepared to put a roadmap in place for continuous upgrades and adjustments. Many have already started the process to remove legacy systems and transition their ERP systems to the cloud, but some still choose to maintain key on-premises infrastructure as part a hybrid approach.

To fully unlock the full benefits and many applications of cloud technologies over the coming decade, manufacturers should prioritise putting the cloud at the heart of their transformation roadmap and ensure that they have a comprehensive plan in place for migration.

The key to success is working with a technology partner who is able to provide industry-specific expertise and post-sales support. In fact, Epicor’s Industry Insights Report 2023 found that 97% of manufacturers surveyed placed a high value on partnering with an ERP provider throughout the entire implementation process, demonstrating the importance of bringing a trusted partner onboard from the very beginning.

Ultimately, it’s crucial to choose a technology partner with the right combination of technical experience and industry knowledge to help implement tailored manufacturing solutions that suit unique business requirements. A trusted partner will work with you to make sure it is the right industry-specific solution – not just today, but for the future.

While the benefits of smart manufacturing appear limitless, until the industry has the right digital foundations in place and a workforce with the technical knowhow, we will not see its real potential come to fruition.

About the author

Andy Coussins brings senior international, operations and enterprise software industry executive experience to Epicor. In the role of Executive Vice President of International, Coussins is responsible for driving sales, focusing on accelerating company growth throughout Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), and Asia Pacific (APAC).