The smart factory

Posted on 11 Mar 2014 by The Manufacturer

A seamless interconnected and intelligent system of ICT, machines and manufacturing data, or a building where all employees know what they are doing: what does a smart factory mean to you? IBM wanted to find out at TM's Manufacturer Directors’ Forum dinner in Sheffield. Will Stirling reports.

Interconnected industry, cyberphysical systems, decentralised production, tablet-operated factories. A real glimpse of the future or a load of marketing codswallop? The smart workplace, and the smart factory, is coming.

IBM, like other big technology firms, is now firmly established as a ‘business solutions provider’ rather than a manufacturer or software company. As such it is keen to find out what the notion of ‘smart business’ means to companies in the manufacturing sector. Eleven manufacturing and construction companies joined the technology giant under the auspices of ’s Manufacturer Directors’ Forum to explore applications of smart technology.

Remain relevant

Most guests related to the need to embrace mobile communications in their businesses. Simon Carr, managing director of construction and property company Henry Boot, said rendering real-time business information on smart phones and tablets was becoming more important in his company.

“Also young people use this technology as second nature, so business has to adopt these solutions or risk isolating the next generation of potential employees,” Carr said, a point many agreed with. In the same industry, Steve Radcliffe, managing director at Clugston Construction, said “We are looking at and trialling the use of tablets and smart phones to assist with planned and reactive maintenance for buildings to enable our personnel to be able to deal with such matters without having to return to offices and depots to look at records.”

Where smart business means intelligent software, both the construction industry guests agreed that Building Information Modelling, or BIM, is very topical. Simon Carr is on a BIM steering group in the Sheffield City Region called BIM4SMEs. The UK government is driving a requirement to have electronic records of future buildings in order to improve the efficiency of building, running, managing and maintaining them. “The potential for smart technology to integrate all aspects of factory or workspace building and operation is very clear,” said Radcliffe.

“The potential for smart technology to integrate all aspects of factory or workspace building and operation is very clear,” Steve Radcliffe, managing director, Clugston Construction

Education and training, as it often does, dominated the discussion. The guests agreed that to engage young people in the manufacturing, construction and trade industries required these sectors to engage with smart technology. IBM’s Colin Smith was impressed with the notion of teachers getting day release to visit companies to explore their needs, rather than, or as well as, visits by schoolchildren. This was needed in several sectors to better explain how to prepare young people for work.

It was noted that the ability, using information technology, to carry out many functions from one’s desk was producing change in the education and training of people coming into Industry. “Although in construction we still need people with hands-on trades skills for many of our tasks, such as bricklaying,” qualified Clugston’s Radcliffe.

Sociability and service

The place of social media was also discussed. The consensus seemed to be that to raise public profile in the companies attending, social media had its place. But, in a very pure business to business environment where one company is selling a very specific product to another company who knows that product completely, SM had limited value and could be seen as wasteful noise.

However, guests did express a real appreciation for increased visibility of how other businesses are changing. Progressing from once core  competencies to new solutions in order to compete, win new business and survive recession.

John Robb, managing director of lighting manufacturer Cooper Industries in Rotherham, recently acquired by The Eaton Corporation, said LED technology had changed their business and brought about a repositioning of lighting as a solution to a business problem rather than a commodity with a traditional sales approach which touted “this light is better than yours”.

“A lot of businesses have recently come round to this philosophy. How can I make my product or service relevant to my customers, giving them benefits like increased sales or decreased costs, rather than a pure selling approach,” said IBM’s Mr Smith. But surely a light is a light is a light? Anexample of the consultancy-like work Cooper is doing comes from Heathrow Terminal 5, which has a large number of blown lights that remain unchanged. “When they designed the building, they didn’t devote enough time to working out how to get someone up there,” said Cooper Industries’ John Robb.

Some businesses are geared very specifically on scheduling a tight and fluctuating programme of orders. Mechanical seals manufacturer AESSEAL is such a company. With a huge number of SKUs and multiple customers globally, it’s pledge is guaranteed delivery anywhere in the world within 48-hours or no charge.

James Selka, production and HR director at AES, said the awardwinning company is examining the “changing and demanding requirements for the machine human interface and the need to accommodate creativity in production planning.” It is embarking on an exercise that is trying to finesse order variance with lean manufacturing and better human/machine interaction.

The smart factories of the future themselves may be built quickly, or in modular ways to enable rapid relocation or reconfiguration. “The modularisation of construction components that is happening now might also enable more flexibility with smart factories when the building owner wishes to make changes to building layout in order to keep up with their changing requirements,” said Steve Radcliffe.