ISVs and software developers have the opportunity to help companies move towards smart factories. By connecting systems, processes and people, the solutions you provide can help them create 21st century operations with systems that automate tasks and improve efficiency, agility and competitiveness.
Jason Ford, application engineering manager for MicroTouch, sees companies moving towards the vision of the smart factory. He shares his insights into what drives businesses to scale and how software companies can grow their businesses by delivering smart factory solutions.
Has people’s perception of the smart factory changed?
Ford: Yes, when people started talking about Industry 4.0 in 2012, many were still managing with spreadsheets. They began to explore how machines, people, and technology could work together to use data to accomplish real-time tasks. Artificial intelligence (AI), cloud and edge computing now drive some processes, but manufacturers continue to look to the future. Now, “Industry 5.0” offers businesses the opportunity to leverage technology to personalize products.
Which manufacturing segments have made the most progress towards the smart factory?
Ford: The warehousing and distribution space has embraced intelligent operations, with Amazon making significant progress since 2015, leveraging robotics for fulfillment and delivery. The automotive space was highly mechanized when the Industry 4.0 revolution began; however, it has not made progress towards becoming fully automated.
What technologies does a Smart Factory 2022 include?
Ford: A smart factory relies on a connected system that allows data to flow freely where it is needed. Once 5G is available, the necessary infrastructure is taken care of – instead of building a network with cables and switches, everything from SCADA and machines to IT can connect to 5G. Additionally, operations can be anywhere with 5G. Even if a facility is on the other side of the planet, as long as it is part of your domain, you can access and manage information through a touch screen, which is an intuitive human-machine interface.
Once the infrastructure is in place, operations must be mechanized and automated. One option is to deploy cobots that work alongside employees to increase their productivity by scavenging materials or performing other low-level, time-consuming tasks. Additionally, in some cases, robots completely manage a production phase, working consistently and uninterrupted 24/7.
Smart factories also leverage artificial intelligence (AI) at the edge for automated actions without the latency of sending data to the cloud. AI also enables companies to maximize the value they derive from their data and improve safety – for example, using machine vision to enforce safety regulations and keep workers safe.
Machine vision solutions can also improve quality assurance, inspecting products faster than a human and increasing quality.
What is driving progress towards the smart factory vision?
Ford: Businesses are creating smart operations for efficiency and productivity gains, which translates into dollars and cents. If everything is connected, a warehouse can tell a distributor that stock is low, and the distributor can share this information with production. Additionally, predictive analytics can improve forecasts, telling manufacturers what their customers are most likely to buy. A smart factory empowers business leaders to make smart decisions and maximize revenue and profit.
How can software companies capitalize on the latest industrial revolution?
Ford: Software companies should invest in the development of solutions for smart factories now. Design products that take advantage of 5G and install on-premises systems in the cloud. Remember Klaus Schwab’s quote: “It’s not the big fish that eats the little fish. It’s the fast fish that eats the slow fish. For software companies in manufacturing, this means forward-thinking business leaders will position their companies for the greatest success.
Also, don’t be intimidated because your business is small. You can beat the big companies to the punch, and the huge scale of this market allows everyone to participate.