We are in the middle of a gigantic digital revolution. Everything that we know and use, all the gadgets in our homes, offices, public spaces as well as the manufacturing environment is getting connected and smarter. It all started with smart phones, then came smart watches, smart healthcare, smart cities and smart everything. Now, finally the time has come for the smart factory.
What exactly is a smart factory, and how is it made possible with today’s technology? In this series, we will delve deep into the concept of smart factory and try to explain the basic concepts, enabling technologies and how the smart manufacturing value chain is going to be reconstructed in the near future via industrial digital transformation.
Digital transformation has been a very hyped topic since the beginning of the current decade and it has been impacting and reshaping every imaginable aspect of our lives. First movers in this sphere was the finance, insurance and consumer goods sectors who saw the business value in the massive amounts of idle, untouched data that belonged to processes and people. Big data analytics became more and more adept at crunching enormous sizes of data, uncovering hidden correlations and meaning among variables, and started turning them into raw materials for new business models and customer-centric services. In late ‘90s and early 2000s, we saw the emergence of customer relations management, business intelligence and decision support systems thanks to data mining techniques. Thus, the mind blowing speed of innovations at data science and the clever usage of numerical methods started creating real value added products and services for companies, with a significant leverage from another emerging paradigm : the cloud. Cloud computing turned these resource-hungry number crunching into attainable and feasible arsenal in the hands of line leaders, completing the circle.
Cloud computing has been paving the way for today’s as-a-service economy where companies big and small start on the same line in the data-driven business value and innovation race. The majority of tools and algorithms of data science are hosted on the cloud today, which is in itself an ecosystem of incumbent vendors, integrators and agile start-ups offering targeted web services and applications. However, it took a lot of time for laggards to approach this digital world, let alone wholly embrace it. One of the late comers has been, understandable to a certain extent, the manufacturing industry which has too much at stake with regard to total asset value and the amount of risk on production loss. Another major reason for this reluctance has been the distance between manufacturing teams who had learnt the language of field buses and automation protocols, and information technology squad who have traditionally been much closer to the headquarters than the factory. Yet, the story is currently passing through a dramatic twist, whereby the Industry 4.0 / IIoT wave promises to bridge this IT/OT gap.
Which takes us to the main plot of this Industrial Digital Transformation series. This paradigm change, the glassroots shift in the ways of doing business is opening up a plethora of opportunities to unlock hidden value behind the massive amount of data that sits idle, and also waiting to be collected from the field. Technology-wise, manufacturing leaders are left without excuses; sensor costs have fallen significantly, open protocols enable seamless interoperability that cancels out vendor lock-in, cloud and edge computing platforms offer feasible storage and analytics solutions, while organizations like the IIC are clearing the fog over the modelling problem of smart processes. Research consistently finds the major obstacles standing in front of industrial digital transformation to be the lack of sufficient funds, management support and knowledgable employees. Therefore, it’s high time we got going on this journey.
This article series will peer into each stop on this journey, which essentially is a quest to create the “Paperless Factory”. We will talk about the value that industrial digital transformation brings to every process on the value chain, keeping in mind that they are not to be strictly followed in a specific order. For the sake of simplicity, the second part will focus on production.
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