Whether you already have a smart factory or are creating one, you undoubtedly want to operate it at peak efficiency. Doing so helps you increase worker productivity while keeping clients happy. Here are some tips for success.

1. Use Data to Inform Your Process Improvements

One of the top advantages of smart factory equipment is that it continually collects data to inform plant operators about operations. However, many people who run smart factories realize they have data available, but don't know how to use it effectively.

Some analysts say there are four data-driven evolutionary phases for smart factories. In the earliest stage, companies have data to use, but it's hard to access. But, the final one encompasses action-oriented data. Then, companies have large, validated data sets and feel confident enough in them to make decisions based on the results.

There are no quick processes to make better use of your data. But, once you believe you're in the last data evolution stage, dig into the information and use it to guide what you do next.

2. Get Employee Feedback About the Tech

When companies make their factories smarter, they can often do the same amount or more with a smaller workforce. However, you'll almost certainly have workers that directly work with smart factory machines. They should ideally be the first points of contact as you assess what's working well and what isn't.

Ask them what they like best about the smart factory as well as any frustrations they have about the inefficiencies that remain. Moreover, be aware that making your facility more efficient may require adjusting your workforce so that it has the know-how to take your factory into the future.

A survey from PwC found candidates with four-year or advanced degrees get three-quarters of non-factory-floor jobs at smart factories. Furthermore, the most common way to upskill workers to meet advanced manufacturing needs is to train them in-house.

After speaking with your factory floor employees about the new tech, you may learn the workforce has skill gaps to address. If so, internal training could fill them.

3. Update Your Factory Layout Every Year

Your smart factory almost certainly has features that assist with inventory management. For example, workers might use handheld scanners as they move around the facility floor to retrieve or restock items. Or, your factory might have autonomous vehicles that safely transport products to the proper places.

Photo by Dids

In any case, you're probably not selling precisely the same products now as you were this time last year. That's because successful businesses grow and change with time. One way to boost efficiency is to adjust the factory layout annually and ensure your most-sold products are in the most accessible sections of your inventory storage areas.

The layout update may indicate you need new equipment to accommodate the changes. In that case, always take the time to give employees the training they need to feel confident about the new layout and equipment.

4. Consider Implementing Predictive Maintenance Technology

Unplanned downtime due to maintenance negatively affects both profitability and profits, and the outcomes tend to get worse the longer a stoppage persists. When Intel investigated what manufacturers do to improve their smart factories, they talked to company representatives about their most prominent pain points. Nearly a quarter of respondents cited equipment maintenance and upkeep as being problematic.

But, if smart equipment has predictive maintenance features, it's easier to spot issues before they become severe enough to stop production. If you already use predictive maintenance tech on some machines, improve it by seeing if other pieces of machinery tend to have unexpected breakdowns more often. If so, focus on adding predictive maintenance sensors to those things, too.

When machines run more consistently, your facility should quickly become more efficient. The predictive maintenance tools used may also inform you of process deficiencies you should change because they make parts wear out more rapidly than normal.

5. Ensure All Efficiency Improvements Connect to a Larger Strategy

It's tempting to see inefficiency in a factory and address it immediately without making sure it supports your overall strategy. Research from Capgemini found 56% of the participants surveyed invested at least $100 million into their smart factories. But, only 14% of them said they felt satisfied with their success levels so far.

That's not to say you should hold off with any planned smart factory enhancements. But, whether the upgrades relate to efficiency or something else, spend time thinking about how you'll measure success and align it with a strategy.

Help Your Smart Factory Grow

These tips will help you achieve better efficiency in your smart factory. Then, you'll be in a better position to excel.

Written by Megan R, Nichols
STEM Writer and Freelance Blogger
Edited for content and clarity by Shawn Tierney

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Megan Ray Nichols

Megan R. Nichols is a freelance writer for The Automation Blog, and regularly contributes to other sites including American Machinist, IoT Times, and Real Clear Science. She also publishes "easy to understand" science articles on her personal blog, SchooledByScience.com
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Forum Comments:
  1. Thanks for your article Megan.
    When I first read it, I wasn't convinced of the merits of some of the suggestions.
    I mean, using data collection to inform process improvement is definitely something many plants don't do but should. Many are already collecting data in HMI/ SCADA or Historian software, but finding the time to examine it seems to be the issue.
    And I do like the idea of involving operators in how the machines are working. While I don't know any operators who are that familiar with "smart factory" concepts, they are usually the people who can tech you how the current technology helps and hurts their efficiency.3. Update Your Factory Layout Every Year
    But upgrading your plant layout every year seems to be going a bit too far? I know some high volume OEMs who definitely would benefit by examining the layout of their facilities, but 99% of the plants I've been in can't dream about changing their layout without a major capital project.
    And honestly, aside from the OEM example, most production facilities make the products for years at a time. Yes, those making disposable consumer products will have a lot of change over, but even then companies like Pepsi and Coke find ways to use the same production lines to make a variety of products in a variety of containers.
    That said, thanks again for the article. While some of the points didn't hit home with me and the manufacturing facilities that I'm familiar with, there was still a lot of good advice in your article.
    Thanks again,
    Shawn Tierney
    Industrial Automation Blogger at TheAutomationBlog.com
    Industrial Automation Instructor at TheAutomationSchool.com

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