ISVs and software developers have the opportunity to help enterprises evolve into smart factories. By connecting systems, processes and people, the solutions you provide can help them create 21st-century operations with systems that automate tasks and boost efficiency, agility, and competitiveness.
Jason Ford, Head of Applications Engineering for MicroTouch, sees enterprises progressing toward the smart factory vision. He shares his insights into what’s driving enterprises to evolve and how software companies can grow their businesses by providing smart factory solutions.
Have people’s perceptions of the smart factory changed?
Ford: Yes, when people started talking about Industry 4.0 in 2012, many were still managing with spreadsheets. They began to explore how machines, people and technology could work together to use data to accomplish tasks in real time. Artificial intelligence (AI), cloud, and edge computing handle some processes now, but manufacturers continue to look ahead. Now, “Industry 5.0” offers enterprises the ability to leverage technology to customize products.
Which manufacturing segments have made the most progress toward the smart factory?
Ford: The warehousing and distribution space has embraced smart operations, with Amazon making significant strides since 2015, leveraging robotics for fulfillment and delivery. The automotive space was highly mechanized when the Industry 4.0 revolution began; however, it hasn’t made strides to become completely automated.
Which technologies does a 2022 smart factory include?
Ford: A smart factory relies on a connected system that allows data to flow freely where it’s needed. Once 5G is available, the infrastructure necessary is taken care of – instead of building a network with cabling and switches, everything, from SCADA and machines to IT, can plug into 5G. Additionally, operations can be anywhere with 5G. Even if a facility is on the other side of the planet, as long as it’s part of your domain, you can access information and manage it via a touchscreen, which is an intuitive human-machine interface.
Once the infrastructure is there, operations need mechanization and automation. One option is to deploy cobots that work alongside employees to increase their productivity by fetching materials or accomplishing other low-level, time-consuming tasks. Also, in some cases, robots completely handle a phase of production, working consistently and without interruption 24/7.
Smart factories also leverage artificial intelligence (AI) at the edge for automated actions without the latency of sending data to the cloud. AI also allows enterprises to maximize the value they get from their data and enhance safety – for example, using machine vision to enforce safety regulations and keep workers safe.
Machine vision solutions can also enhance quality assurance, inspecting products more quickly than a human can and increasing quality.
What’s driving progress toward the smart factory vision?
Ford: Enterprises are creating smart operations for efficiency and productivity gains, which translates to dollars and cents. If everything is connected, a warehouse can tell a distributor that stock is low, and the distributor can share that information with production. Additionally, predictive analytics can improve forecasting, telling manufacturers what their customers are most likely to purchase. A smart factory enables business leaders to make smart decisions and maximize revenues and profits.
How can software companies capitalize on the latest industrial revolution?
Ford: Software companies should invest in developing solutions for smart factories now. Design products that take advantage of 5G and get on-premises systems into the cloud. Remember the Klaus Schwab quote, “It’s not the big fish that eats the small fish. It’s the fast fish that eats the slow fish.” For software companies in the manufacturing space, it means forward-thinking business leaders will position their companies for the greatest success.
Also, don’t be intimidated because your company is small. You can beat the large companies to the punch, and the huge scale of this market enables everyone to participate.