Ajay Pal Singh
When lives could be at stake, manufacturers must be able to adapt without sacrificing quality. (Credit: Ajay Pal Singh)

The Real Future of the Factory

March 2, 2021
The pandemic has placed an intense focus on the importance of smart decisions and adaptability.

For me, the phrase “Factory of the Future” instantly conjures up an image of a fully automated, data-driven, lights-out facility cranking out mass-customized goods without missing a beat. It is full of best-case scenarios for the technology I cover, melding the ideal use cases technology manufacturers often discuss into one seamless environment.

At best it is a blend of future and fantasy. 

While it is fun to think of what could be possible, there is nothing quite like going through a pandemic to help put the future in perspective. Without much warning, the pandemic tested the feasibility of many Factory of the Future theories. Undoubtedly, it has put a wealth of technologies in the spotlight – and often for good reason, when they have been able to rise to the occasion and address blaring areas of concern. 

However, and perhaps more importantly, the pandemic has also placed an intense focus on the importance of a few key qualities: smart decisions and adaptability. 

Smart decisions. Everything is “smart” today, in part because everything within today’s operating environments boasts connectivity. However, connectivity and even data collection are not enough. How manufacturers leverage the insights connectivity can yield is the true difference-maker. Simply put, manufacturers need to be smart. 

Smart connectivity is crucial as social distancing becomes the norm. As Louis Columbus, principal at ERP software company DELMIAworks, stressed in a recent conversation, more manufacturers are realizing that human-driven processes can no longer scale to meet demand due to new distancing requirements on the factory floor and a continued lack of skilled workers. “For these companies, artificial intelligence and the IoT are becoming critical technologies,” he says. “In fact, the manufacturing sector has the most ambitious plans for using IoT in the next two years,” according to Microsoft’s recent IoT Signals Report

“We will see a growing use of smart, connected machines that produce statistical process control data, build SPC graphs, and keep themselves in compliance by automatically self-regulating themselves – all based on their own real-time monitoring algorithms,” says Columbus. “Early adopters of these smart manufacturing machines that we have talked with are already starting to see dividends from their investments in more machinery uptime, higher yield rates from production runs and new insights into how to improve manufacturing efficiencies.”  

Adaptability. There’s no such thing as having a “woe is me” moment in manufacturing. Business still needs to transpire regardless of the challenges – and the end product still needs to deliver to the same expectations. 

Case in point? Consider the example of Twinsburg, Ohio-based Reuter Stokes, which  manufactures sensors for the nuclear energy market – not an industry where cutting corners would prove prudent. In fact according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) guidelines, every component and subcomponent needs to go through scrutiny before it proceeds to the next step. 

Guidelines specifically call for Reuter Stokes to send an inspector to each supplier’s production site for a visual source inspection – which is essentially a hands-on view of what's being performed before signing off on paperwork, taking possession of the component part, and incorporating the part into the final sensor assembly. 

In some instances, COVID-19 made this hands-on approach impossible. Travel restrictions and an outbreak at one of Reuter Stokes’ suppliers took on-premises inspections off the table. Reuter Stokes obtained NRC permission to leverage the same robust video collaboration tools that many companies are using today. 

It was adaptability that enabled the team at Reuter Stokes to develop a comprehensive plan to remotely monitor key tests, fulfill documentation requirements and keep the delivery of crucial sensors on time for its utility customers. 

Bottom line:  While technology may deliver increasingly powerful capabilities within the factory of the future, it still ultimately remains a tool enabling manufacturers to use the key differentiators that have always fueled success. Differentiators like smart decision-making and adaptability. 

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