Smart factories might sound like a cyberpunk edition conceived over the last decade due to IoT’s insurgence and the drastic rise in intelligent ecosystems. However, it cannot be ignored the unofficial lineage dates to the 1760s — the very onset of the industrial revolution.
Steam powered the first industrial revolution. Electricity took care of mass production in assembly lines in the second industrial revolution. When computers and IT could cut down human interference, the third industrial revolution binged on automation. And when industrialization evolved to the point of going beyond the confines of automation and deep into unexplored territories of self-learning automation, companies made way for the now-in-demand ‘smart factories’ — part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0).
Smart factories are manufacturing facilities that employ computer-integrated manufacturing. Smart factories can accommodate rapid design changes and high levels of adaptability to drastic changing needs.
A smart factory utilizes several AI, big data, analytics, cloud computing, and Industrial IoT components to make the system wholesome and comprehensive.
‘Smart’ is a gradual progression
Schneider Electric debuted the first smart factory in the U.S. in 2019. The flexible system that can self-optimize, self-adapt, and learn from new conditions in real-time has reduced the company’s paperwork by 90% repair/maintenance time by 20%.
Smart factories are built to eliminate redundancies and make processes super-efficient. The entire ecosystem of an intelligent factory is built around the philosophy of keeping the flow lean and clean.
Schneider Electric’s smart factory facility in Lexington, Kentucky, which Schneider Electric has been in possession of since it acquired D Square in 1991, did not transition to Industry 4.0 overnight. The transition was over time and was benchmarked against several needs that evolved over time.
The transformation to the smart factory for Schneider Electric started with its acquisition of D Square. When Schneider Electric needed material requirements planning (MRP) investment software after the purchase, the need for ERP stepped in. The implementation of ERP, which automated Schneider Electric’s several traditional business processes, the company observed operations that could be trimmed down further.
Smart factories can only get smarter with 5G
The manufacturing habitat thrives on a different kind of 5G, one that is different from the one being dished out for the public.
For smart factories to survive the upcoming future, they must be equipped to use different 5G profiles.
5G’s uRLLC (Ultra-Reliable and Low Latency Communications), mMTC (Massive Machine Type Communications), and eMBB (Enhanced Mobile Broadband) application profiles are designated to play a central role in the smart factories’ connectivity.
uRLLC application profile is assigned for time-critical applications that demand super-fast response times, such as autonomous driving or automation. Huawei, Ericsson, and Nokia are the top standards developers for uRLLC.
mMTC application profile is assigned for high energy efficiency applications that need to work without an external power supply, such as connected fitness bands and smartwatches, energy meters, and connected home appliances. Huawei and Nokia are the top standards developers for mMTC.
eMBB application profile is assigned for mission-critical applications in manufacturing, military deployments, healthcare, and emergency response.
The current and the future
Currently valued at $153.7B, the smart factory market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 9.76% by 2024. The smart factory market is fueled by innovations and evolutions in manufacturing, rising adoption of industrial robots, and connected enterprises.
A 2018 World Economic Forum (WEF) reveals that while more than 70% of businesses have heavily invested in big data analytics, AI, ML, and 3D printing, they cannot take these projects beyond the initial pilot phase. But the pandemic has helped changed that. A Fortune survey report found that 77% of CEOs believed that the pandemic would force their companies to speed up their digital transformations.
WEF has selected 69 ‘lighthouse facilities’ (‘the world’s most advanced factories leading the way in adopting Industry 4.0 technologies‘) to guide the way forward for other companies to rapidly adopt Industry 4.0 technologies and transform the way the entire manufacturing ecosystem. The lighthouse analogy is about the lighthouses that guided sailors across treacherous seas for centuries. These are treacherous times, and many companies could use the guidance from companies that have already understood and implemented what it takes to run an intelligent factory at a certain benchmark level. Case in point, Schneider Electric’s Lexington plant is designated as an ‘Advanced Lighthouse’ by the World Economic Forum. The Lexington facility was the third SE factory to receive this honor.
Companies deeply care about how they manufacture and how what they manufacture affects their other touchpoints. There is a gap between those already fully integrated with Industry 4.0 technologies and those struggling to find their feet. Companies can bridge this gap by upskilling their workforce. If companies don’t ride this wave, they will be left behind, and rescue will be hard to come by.