Much has been written about the transformation the manufacturing sector is currently undergoing. A wave of new technologies like IoT, automation, and machine learning are coming onboard at the same time that every conceivable product is becoming more complex and high-tech. The priorities of manufacturers remain the same, but the process of manufacturing is in the midst of a sea change.
With all that is going on, it can be easy to lose sight of what is really driving these changes. Even though the factories and supply chains of the new future will be much more high-tech than the ones of the recent past, advanced machines are not what characterizes trends that are variously known as the 4th Industrial Revolution and Manufacturing 4.0.
The key component in any manufacturing initiative from now moving forward is data. All of the technologies that are being rushed into implementation are designed to either harvest more data or to leverage the value of that data in new ways. For instance, automation and machine learning are less about getting robots to build the products of the future and more about standardizing best practices and spotting opportunities for process improvements. These process are not bigger, faster, or stronger because they are driven by machines. They are smarter because they are driven by data.
The role of data in the present and future of manufacturing is important to understand, because reaping the rewards of future manufacturing will take targeted investments and careful strategies. And the manufacturers who commit too heavily to the wrong initiatives could waste a lot of money, cause a lot of disruption, and introduce a distinct competitive disadvantage.
In the rush to update and upgrade factories, the benefits and hazards of data must be a primary concern. Data can lead to many substantial rewards, but the challenge of capturing, storing, analyzing, and utilizing it is a hurdle even for the largest enterprises. Without a robust data management strategy in place along with data management tools like a manufacturing ERP system, the potential of next-generation industry is largely lost.
That should be troubling for all manufacturers, because data promises to enhance every aspect of the supply chain and lead directly to capabilities that have never been possible before:
- Increase the accuracy, quality, and overall yield of complex manufacturing processes in industries like biotech production.
- Create integrated factories that monitor every aspect of production for more consistent results throughout facilities and supply chains.
- Use metrics to better forecast demand, analyze performance, and improve service and support.
- Form better, more predictable relationships with suppliers.
- Stay compliant with expanding regulations for workplace safety and product quality.
- Track the performance of individual machines and granulated processes.
- Introduce more customization and specialization into production processes.
- Integrate manufacturing with the efforts of other departments like sales and accounting.
- Accurately tie manufacturing performance metrics to financial indicators.
The good news for manufacturers is that a focus on data is one of the more modest and measured improvements that can be made to a production facility/process. It requires a relatively small investment in new technologies in order to begin turning data into assets. In many cases, manufacturers are already producing valuable data, they simply lack a way to give it form and function.
It is time that we stop picturing the factories of the future as high-tech Rube Goldberg machines and start picturing them realistically – as smarter versions of what we already have. The way to seize the potential of the future is to simply embrace the value of the data that is already there.