The Brilliant Factory: An Idea Whose Time Has Arrived
First, there were smartphones and smart TVs. Now, there's the smart factory. A factory becomes smart — or "brilliant" — when it merges lean manufacturing methods, sensors, 3D printing and powerful software analytics in a way that enhances productivity.
General Electric (GE), a leader in the industrial sector, has been at the forefront of the movement. The company has launched several brilliant factories around the world. These factories produce diverse products, from jet engine parts to locomotive components.
Although there are initial expenditures, the "brilliant" changes are expected to reduce costs and increase profit margins drastically over time. So it turns out that, as the television commercials say, GE can be digital and industrial "like peanut butter and jelly." And when GE streamlines its factories and processes, other manufacturers take notice.
Of course, what's new often turns out to be old. Henry Ford, you'll recall, surmised that complex tasks always become easier when they're broken down into smaller pieces. And that's the idea behind brilliant manufacturing. It's breaking down processes into basic steps and then designing computer code to define how each task is performed.
The concept integrates teams from engineering design and manufacturing to work toward realistic solutions on the plant floor. Machines equipped with sensors collect data that monitors every step of the manufacturing process, allowing a manufacturer to make adjustments in real time to maximize production efficiency.
There are four main driving forces behind the brilliant manufacturing movement:
1. Lean production. The roots of the brilliant factory concept can be traced back to the advent of lean manufacturing, a philosophy derived mainly from the Toyota assembly lines. Companies both here and abroad have embraced this concept and it has spread to such sectors as oil and gas, retail clothing, computer chips and construction.
Lean manufacturing principles have resulted in faster assembly times, less material waste and greater volume. Changes focus on customer satisfaction and meeting evolving marketplace needs.
2. Technological advances. Just as technology has made huge inroads into virtually every aspect of society, so it has had a profound effect on manufacturing. Improvements range from automation to laser-based tools to robotics, cobotics (robots designed to collaborate with humans) and exoskeletons (wearable mobile machines that allow for increased strength). It's not just humans doing the work these days. As a result, a brilliant factory may look like the set of a sci-fi movie.
Brilliant manufacturing integrates technology-based tools, such as lasers, that have been used for years by consumers. Use of these applications has expanded gradually to the manufacturing sector. In particular, investments in robotics and other automated "non-human" apparatus are improving internal controls within the workplace.
3. 3D printing. The growth of another key component, 3D printing — also known as additive manufacturing — has soared during the past decade. Essentially, the printer makes solid three-dimensional objects from a digital file by laying down (adding) successive layers of just the right amount of material. Each layer is a thinly sliced cross-section of the eventual object.
This process lets manufacturing firms operate precisely and efficiently. Notably, it can create parts that couldn't be produced before, while reducing waste by using only the raw materials needed.
4. Digital thread. This is the name given to the communication framework that connects traditionally siloed elements in manufacturing processes. It provides an integrated view of the product throughout the manufacturing life cycle. Using a digital thread requires firms to weave data-driven decisions into the manufacturing culture.
Most manufacturers don't have anywhere near the resources that GE has at its disposal. But that doesn't mean your smaller firm can't use brilliant manufacturing if it adopts and adapts some of these practices. Using available technology to help streamline processes and build on the foundation of the four pillars can help lead your company into a brilliant future.