The only constant in life is change.

Those words, or similar ones, are most frequently attributed to Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher who very likely wasn’t looking at a factory floor when he made this observation. Nevertheless, it is a fitting comment on the state of manufacturing. Successful manufacturing enterprises don’t stand still. By definition, neither do their production floors.

Toyota, for example, has introduced its Toyota New Global Architecture. While it is a comprehensive approach to developing new vehicles, TNGA has a strong plant-floor component. Flexibility is the key, with elements including compact equipment, smaller paint booths and production lines that can be easily lengthened or shortened as needs dictate. In another example, L.B. Foster completely reimagined its Magnolia, Texas, production site, introducing single-piece flow as its centerpiece. 

In short, changes in technology, processes and talent are taking place today to create the factory floor of tomorrow. IndustryWeek takes a look at three examples.

Smart Phone, Smart Factory

“The factory floor is becoming like a phone, a smartphone. A smartphone is a GPS; a smart phone is a video, a television, a phone. It’s a camera. It’s everything. We should learn from that example.”

So advises Amit Agarwal, senior manager, automation engineering & MIS at Gentex Optics, a manufacturer of lenses for eyeglasses and a business of France’s Essilor International, which annually produces more than 500 million lenses worldwide.

Agarwal’s Gentex Optics has taken heed of the smartphone example. The manufacturer has been moving forward with a multimillion-dollar smart manufacturing initiative at its Dudley, Mass., production site. And it’s not alone. According to a recent report from technology consulting firm Capgemini, smart factories could add $500 billion in annual value added to the global economy in the next five years, driven by a 27% increase in manufacturing efficiency. Moreover, Capgemini suggests the $500 billion is a conservative forecast, with $1.5 trillion possible on the high end.

Lessons Learned at Gentex Optics

At Gentex Optics, Industry 4.0 is in the midst of transforming the factory floor from islands of automation to integrated, highly automated processes that speak to each other and perform a wide variety of tasks with little human intervention. About 60% of the factory is automated at this stage of the project.

The goal of the transformation is straightforward, explains Agarwal: improved productivity and efficiency. And those gains are occurring, he says.

Agarwal shared lessons learned from the Dudley site’s more than five-year (and ongoing) transformation journey during the recent MESA International North American Conference and in a follow-up interview with IndustryWeek, where the focus of the conversation was the human side of a digital transformation.

Accenture’s Five Tips for Success

A successful factory floor transformation doesn’t happen by accident. Russ Rasmus, managing director at Accenture Strategy, offers five tips to improve your company’s chances for success:

1. Understand the most critical business challenges you are trying to alleviate and focus on business value. … This is not an OpEx program rollout.

2. Connect the factory level value to your company’s goals; plant workers need to know they impact the big picture.

3. Coordinate centrally across the business, but own and execute at the plant level.

4. Engage the right measures and transparency to drive the performance you desire—you manage what you measure.

5. Recognize how digital enablers can complement or accelerate shop floor improvement efforts. Digital is the future of the plant.

Interestingly, one key point he emphasized had little to do with technology at all.

“Culture and leadership is more important even though it is a technological project. Without those you cannot do such a project,” he says.

Agarwal brings an interesting perspective to a smart manufacturing transformation project. His background is not in IT. Instead Agarwal has a master’s degree in plastics engineering and an MBA in entrepreneurship and finance. He also has 15 years of experience in manufacturing operations and engineering, with recent work in lean and Six Sigma, and automation program management.

The IT/OT Convergence

That varied background may explain why Agarwal speaks frequently about eliminating silos when it comes to advancing a transformational project. In this instance he is speaking of the traditional manufacturing silos of IT and OT as two separate business domains, with interaction between the two functions most kindly described as less than efficient.

Early in its Industry 4.0 project, Gentex Optics worked to eliminate those silos by bringing the engineering and MIS/IT group under a single reporting structure at the Dudley site, thus driving improved IT/OT collaboration.

“You can’t do this project group without that (collaboration),” Agarwal says. “It’s impossible.

“We worked as a team. People had no egos then. It was one project, one success,” Agarwal explains.  “I think people, as they work together, they learn to respect each other and find the strength so that they can work together.”

He makes another point about the benefits of IT/OT collaboration: learning from all data your automation is collecting in real time. “At the end of the day your systems need to connect, so your production floor needs to connect with SCADA. SCADA needs to connect with MES, and MES needs to connect with ERP. And all the data that is generated, you need to learn from that—do your BI and AI—and then infuse the learnings back into the system. That also cannot happen without IT and OT.”