The Importance of Smart Manufacturing

I don’t have a problem with system architects, consultants, integrators and others who are making their living from Smart Manufacturing. It’s a hot trend and if I was a consultant, I’d paste the words “Industry 4.0, IIoT, Smart Manufacturing and Digitalization” on my shingle too. Nothing wrong with following the market and being there to help customers with the things that customers are interested in.

I followed this philosophy during my career. At one point I called myself the Dr. of Industrial Networking. I shamelessly promoted my expertise in EtherNet/IP, Modbus TCP, PROFINET IO and other technologies. Nothing wrong with that.

Where I draw the line though, is with people that are falsely portraying this trend. I’ve listened to these people tell me that this is a massive transformation that is going to end manufacturing as we know it. Start Smart Manufacturing today or start listing your manufacturing machines for sale on eBay tomorrow.

These Kool-Aid drinkers are portraying Smart Manufacturing processes as all-important. It’s life or death. PLCs are done. Edge control is the only way to go. You get on the bandwagon of Smart Manufacturing or you’ll quickly be out of business1.

That’s just not right and it’s just not true.

The truth is that there are three groups of manufacturers looking at Smart Manufacturing. In the first group are the manufacturers that have the time, resources and money to transform their businesses. These are usually large, Fortune 500 companies. These companies are hiring small armies of data scientists, system architects, IT specialists, control specialists and more to implement Smart Manufacturing systems. There is no doubt that some of them are having great success and seeing real results. Others, not so much. The ROI just isn’t there.

A second group has studied it and though they like some of the results they could get, are leery of deploying Smart Manufacturing systems. They may have some smart people who have implemented pilots now and then with varying degrees of success. Some don’t believe they have the infrastructure to support the sophisticated edge controllers and devices required to gather the data they need. Others don’t have the talent they need to analyze the data. Still others know that it would be possible to optimize their manufacturing systems, but don’t know how to do it and if they did, how they would collect the data they need to do it?

The third group, mostly smaller manufacturers, are totally consumed by just getting production out and don’t have time to even think about anything else.

More often than not, manufacturers are still experimenting. Trying to decide what makes sense for them and what doesn’t. That’s really the prudent thing to do. Unlike what the consultants and some trade groups say, Smart Manufacturing is still in its infancy. We’re all trying to figure it out and see what makes sense and what doesn’t. The real truth is that will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, from process to process and a great deal depends on the culture, talent and organization of the manufacturer.

That’s the real truth of Smart Manufacturing in 2024.

1Something similar happened in the broader culture a few years back.