Data makes factories smarter, and information is a critical raw material for Industry 4.0. As part of the larger digital supply chain, the smart factory is positioned to transform customer relationships.

Integrating with and responding to the rest of the world is key to unlocking the potential of smart factories. Digitization enables manufacturing facilities to be interconnected, optimizing production between factories based on real-time supply and demand data. Moreover, ecosystem-wide connectivity among suppliers, partners, distributors, customers and others will only create a collaborative benefit for all involved.

Connected ecosystem empowers smart factories

There are a few examples of how the smart factories enabled by Industry 4.0 can leverage the benefits of connected, intelligent systems to transform the customer experience. Let’s examine some of them.

Replace long setup times with dynamic production

Traditionally, manufacturers have needed to predict capacity requirements well in advance; the time required to retool production lines could make switching to a different product a major decision. Critically, a company could know whether a new product was successful only after the fact, when it had already committed to production.

A connected, digital smart factory, however, can use data from across the ecosystem to dynamically control production — for example, by using additive manufacturing technology based on 3D printing.

Because setup time is driven close to zero, manufacturing quotas can be informed by demand and near-term predictions, based on data, making production far more efficient. Small lots can be produced based on near-real-time demand changes — enabling new levels of customizability, protecting the manufacturer from cost overruns, and ensuring that customers have readily available access to the product.

Enable just-in-time supply chains without brittleness

The bill of materials for a device can be complex even for relatively simple products. That can also create a complex supply chain with many participants, and the quest for higher operational efficiency by driving down inventories of both raw materials and finished goods can make that supply chain brittle, potentially interfering with production.

The agility and efficiency of just-in-time supply chains are inescapable, and the need to fine-tune them further is a fact of life. Suppliers of raw materials and producers of finished goods depend on each other deeply, and greater visibility by both parties into real-time, location-based data helps avoid issues that interfere with operations, making them more successful.

Revolutionize plant operations and maintenance

Industrial internet of things (IIoT) technologies are making every piece of equipment on the factory floor a network endpoint. Coordination among everything from robotic systems to raw material stocks and warehouse inventories, then, helps improve efficiency and reduce downtime.

Maintenance teams can use augmented reality systems to superimpose data readouts and digital images of internal systems over their real-world view of equipment they are working on. Digital twins of factory equipment can combine sensor data, historical information, and domain knowledge to monitor status, enhance predictive maintenance, and troubleshoot issues when they do arise. All of this makes maintenance faster and more cost-effective, improving the customer experience for factory operators.

Harness the power of extended automation

The history of automation has largely been one of replacing human labor with machines. While that trend will no doubt continue, Industry 4.0 is enabling an era that goes even further. Emerging generations of fully connected, flexible systems exchange a constant stream of data to increase agility for manufacturers, while also improving the experiences they deliver to their customers.