The Smart Factory, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT), being “connected”... All these terms and topics are driving manufacturers to consider new and innovative ways to tie together their assets, and make their processes more safe, agile, and productive. The bottom line: realize greatly reduced costs and dramatically increase profits. You might consider this a mythical “Holy Grail,” but it's on everybody's to-do list and you better believe it's possible. Not only that, your competitor is doing it right now.
How do you get started? How do you not throw millions or even “just” thousands of dollars down the drain and get nothing for it except grief and a pink slip? Try this approach and set yourself up for success.
First: have a vision, understand where you want to get to, and by when. This doesn't have to be to seven decimal places of accuracy, just the destination. It doesn't need too much definition at first; that will come. But having that out in front of you will keep you on task and allow your people to aim for the same goal.
Metrics come next. Consider elements such as your tolerance for investment of capital, payback, and risk. Set some incremental measures to allow for progress reporting but without needing to micromanage your process.
The purpose is to succeed, so know what you want that to look like on this first project and have some milestones along the way; get your bearings, and allow others to calibrate from that. For instance, if you want to increase yields in a chemical production operation, define the critical parameters for your steps, deploy the IIOT-enabled instruments, screens, and trained operators to the retrofitted or new processing equipment. Monitor the data coming from it remembering that you may not know everything you are looking for. But watch closely, and frequently analyze the data; there will be lots of it (“Big Data” isn’t just a slogan).
You should also be seeing some new information (previously un-instrumented), and much of it your team will not have seen before. They need the latitude to learn as they go, within the confines of the metrics you set up in the beginning—at a high level, with room to move within those guard rails. They know the destination, and they are smart members of your team, so have them measure, adapt, and measure more. Log everything, come back to it later.
Finally, get yourself a partner. The journey is always easier with the copilot. Look for an integrator, someone who has experience doing this in whose stock in trade is guiding clients successfully through this and providing the material and the resources to accomplish it.
Because your integrator’s success is your success, set them up that way. That means trust; in other words, go with someone who knows what they're doing. Insist on references to back up their experience and be sure they have the assets to make it happen for you. Have your partner assist in sorting all that Big Data you collected, analyzed, and saved. Look for patterns. Associate leading indicators with actual outcomes in production yields. Make hypotheses, test them, and test them again. A solid integration partner should be able to churn through lots of data with your team and present findings and some curiosities relatively quickly.
Think about those together. When you have some conclusions, put them to the test in another project, and expand your knowledge as well as your smart factory. This could be a second production line, another tank or skid or kettle, another robot, whatever is your appetite and technology of choice for your business. Repeat.
The factory can only be as smart as its leadership. Hire the best. Be the best. Make sure that you're giving your team every advantage, every opportunity to succeed. Find them doing the right things, reward them with not only praise but more responsibility. They love that … Seriously, success begets more success so don't interrupt your best performers in mid-stride. Encourage them to keep going and give them everything they need.
As you make progress step-by-step in your factory of the future, your smart team, your smart equipment, and your interconnected network is going to enable you to do things you previously only dreamed of. That's part of the journey. Embrace it, and hang on, it's going to be a fun ride.