Data is driving Industry 4.0. Is your company equipped to compete?

Smart manufacturing is an evolution that started in Germany and has enjoyed wide adoption in Europe, improving essentially all aspects of manufacturing. It’s enabled manufacturing companies of all sizes to be more productive, improve quality and become more cost effective. 

“The idea behind smart manufacturing is to be able to have more control over the manufacturing process,” says Ray Nejadfard, Dean and Executive Director of the Engineering/Manufacturing Technology Center of Excellence at Cuyahoga Community College®. “It enables manufacturers to operate predictively and avoid costly downtime while improving quality.” 

Smart Business spoke with Nejadfard about smart manufacturing, its effect on the industry and how well prepared Northeast Ohio companies are for Industry 4.0.

How widespread is the use of smart manufacturing in Northeast Ohio?

There is an effort under way to educate Northeast Ohio manufacturers on smart manufacturing — what it is, why it matters and how to outfit companies so they can move in that direction. Groups such as Team NEO are actively meeting with manufacturers to educate them on Industry 4.0.

In most cases, large companies have already adopted the technology and the workforce necessary to implement smart manufacturing, but the plan and the hope is to get more small and mid-sized companies involved because they’re the backbone of industry — some 90 percent of area manufacturing businesses would be classified as small or mid-sized. 

How can business leaders who have yet to implement smart manufacturing begin to put those processes in place at their companies?

There is a road map. It starts with a questionnaire that helps manufacturers evaluate their companies and offers steps they can take to improve. That’s because the biggest hurdle to implementation is that manufacturers don’t know where to start. The second hurdle is finding people in the workforce who are capable of operating in a smart manufacturing environment. 

What does smart manufacturing demand of the workforce?

Those who work in smart manufacturing must have a combination of mechanical, electrical and IT networking knowledge and skills. It’s important to understand the electrical and mechanical aspects of the cutting-edge machines so it’s clear how processes work, and an understanding of networking is needed to ensure the machines are producing the data needed to effectively adjust processes.

And that’s the other side: data analysis. Today’s most advanced equipment uses sensors to produce data that’s hugely important to the smart manufacturing process. But that data is useless unless people are capable of analyzing it and then effectively acting on it to better control manufacturing processes. 

What is the risk to businesses that don’t adopt smart manufacturing practices?

Manufacturers that don’t implement smart manufacturing will see the competition eat their lunch. Unfortunately, too many companies believe few can compete with them and they resist advancing their operations. But with smart manufacturing, smaller companies that have successfully implemented the technology and have the workforce to exploit it are coming into the market and having tremendous success.

Companies that don’t adapt are going to see themselves in a very difficult spot in the next 10 to 15 years because they’re not going to be as productive, as cost effective, as companies that embrace smart manufacturing.

Companies that, at even the most modest levels, have applied smart manufacturing have seen significant gains in productivity and quality controls — and that’s not even with smart manufacturing fully applied; just enough to improve the efficiency of some machines.

Smart manufacturing is fairly new in the U.S., but in Europe it’s been widely adopted with great success. Fortunately, the supports that exist in Northeast Ohio are helping companies adopt these new processes and remain globally competitive.

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