These days, there seems like there is smart everything. Smartphones are everywhere, allowing us access to the network at any time of day. The rich and not-so-rich are getting their hands on interconnected devices to create smart homes, complete with appliances that order your groceries online for you. There’s news coming out fairly often that speaks of smart cars, four-wheeled vehicles that drive themselves.
It is no surprise that factories are getting smarter, too. Technology is wiring and hooking things up, and even the great giants of the industry are getting in on it. However, the process of making a factory smarter can get costly. You’ll be buying bulk cables for networking, probably some new machinery, and all sorts of other additional costs. What could possibly justify that expense?
The Internal Network
One of the obvious benefits is the network itself. The ability to get real-time information on every step, every machine, every system in the factory is staggering. Reports and data can come in from everything in a facility, along with other factories the company might have. All of this can be processed or observed as it comes in, giving the company a greater window of opportunity to react to anything that might be amiss.
This technology enables people to schedule preventative maintenance on their equipment. It monitors anything out of place in a process, allowing for more reliable and accurate corrections. It can even provide enough data to build a model of the factory’s workings, allowing it to be analyzed to optimize production efficiency.
One thing that everyone overseeing a factory wants to have is predictability. The ingredients go into a mixer at this time. It takes this many minutes to mix. Once done, the batch is poured out into bottles. They want the manufacturing process to be as routine as possible, and a smart factory can help with that.
By detecting even the slightest deviations early on and comparing them to previous data, the smart factory can make the minute adjustments needed to keep the process predictable. The system merely needs to be given the parameters that are acceptable and allowed to make the necessary changes. A predictable factory is one that cuts down on re-doing processes and creates less strain on any existing quality control procedures.
Better Inventory Management
Inventory management is simplified by making a factory go “smart.” Integrating a data management system into the process allows computers to keep track of everything, up to and including packaging and storage. This allows for better, more detailed tracking of the inventory of the factory. While this won’t eliminate the need for a human being to keep an eye on things, it does reduce the amount of time and effort needed.
Real-time Quality Control
Quality control is a persistent part of the manufacturing process. Someone has to keep an eye on the products as they’re made and packaged, making sure each batch is up to the set standard.
By using a multitude of sensors detecting minute changes and the like, a smart factory can use fiber optic cables to deliver the information in real-time. Program the system to pick up deviations outside an acceptable range, and you can get early warnings and make corrections in-process.
Real-time Metering Systems
The ability to keep track of materials is also improved by smart factory setups. The ability to monitor how much of what is used in which part of the process is crucial, as it allows for real-time analysis of what the location has in stock. This can give early warnings if raw materials are running low and need to be replenished.
Safety is also a huge benefit. More than one factory has equipment that can be hazardous, such as if used improperly or during cleaning. A high-powered industrial mixer, for instance, can be dangerous if it isn’t shut down properly while a cleaning crew is inside the chamber. A smart factory allows for an additional failsafe system, monitoring activity and keeping things under control and improving the overall safety of the equipment.
Digital systems also allow for the ability to create models of the whole process and system. This allows for a great deal of experimentation without shutting down or risking the physical operations of the factory. Those looking to improve efficiency can make tweaks in the digital model, then watch them play to get a prediction on what might occur if this is done with the actual machinery.
This ability to experiment can be useful for a variety of things. It can help test changes to a site’s operating hours, determine if the factory’s capacity can be improved, or even do preliminary tests of possible new equipment.
Smart factories aren’t universal yet, but more and more factories and industries are adopting the technology to serve their purposes. The improvements to the process are worth the cost in most cases. Efficiency, quality, safety, and more can all be made better through the real-time monitoring that smart factory systems provide.