What is connected factory?

A significant component of modern-day cultural, technological, and economic development is the rapid growth of digital integration and automation. These developments are not only improving our personal lives with options such as smart device integrations, but also the efficacy of virtually all industries. Hospitality, food service, healthcare, retail, infrastructure, supply chain, and manufacturing are just a few industries that are already investing heavily in integration and automation to streamline workforce processes, and to improve the ultimate quality and convenience of their products and services. 

Perhaps the most notable of these updates in the supply chain and manufacturing sectors are the implementation of connected factory models. Generally speaking, a connected factory (also known as a “smart factory”) streamlines interactions between machines and human workers to promote consistency and efficiency. Rather than any one specific kind of update, a connected factory refers to any factory that implements comprehensive digital transformation efforts as a framework for workflow. This may involve the use of updates such as sensors, automation options, and monitoring technology to homogenize workflow, reduce errors, and enable self-correction. 

Therefore, “connected factory model” is a term that encapsulates a wide variety of factories that have benefitted from optimization as a result of technology upgrades. These upgrades can include everything from the use of an MSP to provide real-time, remote IT support to the utilization of machine learning to analyze and optimize every stage of production. 

Common characteristics of connected factories

As mentioned, the specific systems in place will largely be unique to the individual factory. However, there are some systems, updates, and integrations that are commonly utilized as a part of a connected factory model, including:

  • Upgraded sensors;
  • Enablement of real-time communication between end-users and systems;
  • Monitoring systems;
  • Automation;
  • Machine learning technology;
  • Upgrades to legacy systems;
  • Cloud integrations and backups;
  • Automated or streamlined feedback loop;
  • Streamlined data infrastructure;
  • Streamlined process structure;
  • Remote access capabilities;
  • Easily scalable process implementation;
  • Systems integrations;
  • Large-scale collaboration between employees and computer systems.

Examples of connected factories 

Whirlpool is one manufacturing company leading the industry through the use of a connected factory model. To reduce waste created during the production process, they have sought to improve efficiency. To this end, Whirlpool has adopted an analytics platform to help them assess sources of production waste, as well as the typical amount of waste. This enables the company to monitor information from facilities worldwide, and the data is accessible through a convenient dashboard.

Siemens is a German company that is making many strides to promote consistency, scalability, and efficiency within their large company through digital transformation. Among the company’s efforts are:

  • Data management and analysis through a cloud platform;
  • User-friendly digital modeling systems that use real data;
  • Large-scale reprogramming options for factory machinery.

Essentially, all of these upgrades are meant to streamline interactions between facilities, machinery, employees, management, and end-users. 

Ocado is a UK-based grocery-delivery company that is investing heavily in automation and machine learning to improve their manufacturing and distribution efforts. These investments include:

  • Automated robots that sort, pack, and move products;
  • Development of robots that can learn from and predict employee behavior, and subsequently assist employees with tasks;
  • Self-driving vehicles for delivery purposes. 

Although these updates involved significant investment, Ocado strategically made them gradually over time. Gradual implementation can be a smart move not just for the sake of cost reduction, but also to allow time for integration of new technology, and necessary training for employees regarding how to use it properly. 

Connected factory benefits

The Implementation can confer many benefits on a company that chooses to make the necessary investments, including:

  • Higher productivity: The data collection and analytics involved in a connected factory may facilitate the reduction of errors, improved understanding of systems and processes, and ultimately may result in higher productivity.
  • Scalability: Because a connected factory model can allow you to easily implement changes on a large scale, it is very beneficial in terms of changing the rate or process of production. 
  • Flexibility: Opportunities for remote, large scale changes can also promote flexibility in work operations. Additionally, digital transformation and automation can fill any gaps in personnel.
  • Security: Advanced cloud-based data storage and monitoring systems can improve security and breach response efforts. 
  • Transparency: A connected factory model can facilitate product traceability and worker accountability due to improved tracking and analysis capabilities. 
  • Simplified sourcing: Sourcing can often be incredibly time-consuming, but software can help you narrow down promising sources and subsequently monitor the quality of the product more efficiently.
  • Improved communication: A common upgrade utilized in a connected factory is the improvement of communication channels. This can allow issues and updates to be discussed more quickly, and therefore can result in more effective problem resolution. 
  • Improved worker safety: System monitoring can notify the company of any problems with equipment, while robotic elements can replace human workers for more dangerous tasks. 
  • Improved product and service quality: Because connected factories can receive feedback on their products and services quickly, and subsequently implement appropriate changes, they may boast better quality products and services.
  • Cost efficiency: While there is often a significant upfront investment to implement a connected factory model, improved productivity, reduced errors, and efficient updates can ultimately save the business a lot of money in the long run. 

Implementation into your business

As mentioned, it can be helpful to pursue the connected factory model with gradual steps. Typically, you should start by improving storage and security methods, updating legacy systems, and improving channels of communication. It may even be helpful to consider the use of a remote monitoring system in congress with an MSP to provide tech support and troubleshooting. Once you have made these upgrades, you should consider your business model and long-term goals to determine whether you are interested in further upgrades. If so, it will be to your benefit to consult appropriate professionals to get some helpful input and to streamline the updates. 

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