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Start with low-hanging fruit: 4 ways smart technology improves manufacturing productivity

March 20, 2017

You’ve likely heard or read about the predictions stating smart, connected products, systems, and machinery will transform manufacturing. Sensor-based technology promises to bring seas of contextual data to manufacturers for a wide range of exciting, disruptive applications from predictive analytics to automated machine maintenance. These are the high-profile benefits generating excitement.

But, if you look past the hype, you can see smart technologies also address some of the basic fundamentals of manufacturing, like productivity, efficiency, and customer service.

Digital technologies and Internet of Things (IoT) initiatives often focus on new, uncharted regions where the financial return is vague and hard to define. Manufacturers should also consider the more basic application, as these can provide short-term return on investment (ROI) and, in essence, fund the more long-term efforts. Some immediate pay-back will help justify the investment and generate support from senior executives. These fundamental benefits can be tracked through the transformation stages, helping to keep a positive view of the project.

  1. Answers and insights
    Increased productivity is one of the easy-to-reach benefits of IoT projects. Increasing productivity of the workforce can be as simple as empowering workers with easy access to data so they can make well-informed decisions based on real-time facts, not guesses, estimates or week-old spreadsheets. Managers can be strategic. Front-line users can be efficient. Departments can see how their roles affect the bottom line. When machines, departments, systems, colleagues, contractors, and suppliers are all connected, personnel can obtain big-picture views as well as dive into details of a particular incident.
  2. Keep equipment running
    Shop-floor processes can also be optimized through smart technology. Sensors embedded in shop-floor machinery will allow maintenance teams to monitor machine status and automate preventive maintenance. For example, sensors can be set to monitor conditions like temperature, vibration, and pressure, common early warning signs of trouble. If trigger points are reached, escalation alerts can be sent to the maintenance team for intervention. Early intervention will help prevent unexpected downtime.
  3. Maintaining inventory
    Capturing, monitoring, and analyzing data about maintenance and break-fix repairs will help the manufacturer predict exactly what spare parts will be needed, when, and where. This accurate prediction eliminates unnecessary inventory, saving funds. In industries where components are high value, such as IM&E or aerospace and defense, the savings can be substantial. Eliminating excessive “just in case” inventory frees up capital for other investments.
  4. Tracking location
    The use of sensors and GPS tracking in the warehouse, with material handling equipment, and vehicle fleets provides quick ROI. Knowing exactly where goods and vehicles—even people—are physically located is a major benefit, one that will quickly provide savings. Inventory will be more accurate. Shipping accuracy will improve. The ability to track location of service vehicles and delivery vans will help dispatch with routing and predicting delivery times. Verifiable data eliminates discrepancies and improves productivity.

Concluding thoughts

Smart technologies offer many benefits, including innovative long-term concepts. While those untested disruptive applications promise gains in revenue and new global opportunities, manufacturers shouldn’t overlook the fundamentals that can be improved as well. Several within-reach improvements to productivity and efficiency can provide fast ROI and reinforce to executives the practical value. Short-term successes will balance further investments while building a strong foundation of system improvement.


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