Posted on Dec 19, 2016

First, there were smartphones and smart TVs. Now, there’s the smart factory.

So when does a factory become smart, or brilliant, as they are called? When it merges lean manufacturing methods, sensors, 3D printing and powerful software analytics in a way that enhances productivity.

General Electric (GE), the world’s leading industrial company, is at the forefront of the movement. The company opened its first brilliant factory near Pune, India, in 2015 and another is in the works (see box below). The multimodal Pune factory will produce diverse products, from jet engine parts to locomotive components, for four different GE businesses all under one roof.

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 sit up and take notice.

Smart Manufacturing Background Information

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 is the GE idea. It’s breaking down the manufacturing 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.

The brilliant factory concept may have major implications both here and abroad. Currently, advanced manufacturing industries accounts for 24 million American jobs, which is roughly 13% of all jobs in the United States. Each of those jobs supports another 3.5 jobs throughout the supply chain. The impact is even more significant when you consider the global economy and the trickle-down effect that innovations tend to have.

Four Pillars

There are four main driving forces behind the brilliant smart 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, the brilliant factory may look more like the set of a sci-fi movie than your granddaddy’s plant.

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.

GE Breaks Ground on New Facility

Following up quickly on the brilliant factory in India, GE recently announced the groundbreaking of a similar facility in Canada.

The new factory is being built in Welland, a Canadian transportation hub known for a canal linking Lake Ontario and Lake Erie with railways, just across the border from Buffalo, New York.

According to GE, the factory will produce massive gas engines and other components for GE businesses, employing about 220 skilled workers. GE says it expects the facility to go on stream in 2018. Others are on their drawing boards.