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Smart Manufacturing Isn’t Just for the Big Guys

By Norber Sparrow, Plastics Today

Ananth Seshan calls himself an evangelist for the application of Industry 4.0 using advanced artificial intelligence technologies at small and medium size enterprises (SMEs). The buzzwords in that short sentence typically don’t resonate with SMEs because of the perceived cost and complexity of implementing smart manufacturing technology. And that’s where the evangelism kicks in.

The CEO of 5G Technologies Ltd., Seshan has spent the better part of three decades helping Fortune 100 companies across the globe integrate smart manufacturing tools. More recently he has applied that expertise to the smaller end of the manufacturing spectrum, and claims to have been involved in the ideation of more than 200 successful implementations of Industry 4.0 technology at SMEs. That piqued our interest, so we asked him to tell us more about how this might benefit small and medium size manufacturers (SMMs) operating in the plastics space.

Let’s begin with a definition of smart manufacturing and, more specifically, Industry 4.0.

Seshan: Industry 4.0, or smart manufacturing, in simple terms is the application of data in real time to improve manufacturing performance. One could call it “intelligence-driven” manufacturing. In order to be able to do this, one has to first collect real-time data of their manufacturing operations. By manufacturing operations I do not mean just the plant and the enterprise but the entire ecosystem, including supply chains, logistics, and so forth.

We need to understand the types of data that are useful for each type of machine/process, and use a standard, reusable schema and/or protocols for collecting such data from sensors, devices, machine controllers, processes, IT systems, and humans.

Finally, the data thus collected has to be transformed into some form of “actionable intelligence” in real time using software apps — which could also be AI based — and presented to various stakeholders to achieve “intelligence-driven” manufacturing.

This whole process helps manufacturers to become flexible, event driven, proactive, and, hence, more competitive.

Adoption of smart manufacturing among SMMs is quite low. Cost presumably is one reason, but are other factors also in play?

Seshan: We did a survey of more than 300 SMMs to understand why there is a very low uptake. The survey results showed that the SMMs believed there were three major challenges:

  • Upfront cost for establishing a network and sensor infrastructure;

  • need for a qualified IT staff to implement and nurture smart manufacturing;

  • extended implementation time.

Today, we have smart manufacturing solutions that can be implemented without the need for a sophisticated network infrastructure. The Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and devices are quite affordable. The solutions in many cases are simple to implement and DIY and, therefore, do not need extended implementation time or an IT staff. These barriers to entry can be broken!

What do you tell the SMM who says: Business is humming along and I see no reason to fix what ain’t broke?

Seshan: I would say that the SMM will be left behind because the manufacturing world is changing very fast. Besides, smart manufacturing is not a fix for something that is broken. It is a journey that opens up myriad new opportunities for the SMM to grow and expand its business. If the SMM wants to capitalize on those opportunities, it has to embark on this journey sooner rather than later!

Let’s go with that. Some plastics processors running fairly small shops decide they want to dip their toes in smart manufacturing technology. Where should they begin such that they are not overwhelmed?

Seshan: They should start small but must have an overall strategic goal. That is, they should “think globally, but act locally.”

Begin with simple transformations — replace paper records or Excel-based tracking of operations with digital tracking using simple but smart and affordable apps that are available today. This will enable real-time visualization of their plant and the status of their operations. By understanding the status of their operations, the SMMs will be able to make informed decisions in real time to avoid losses and improve productivity. This can be the first step. More sophistication can be incrementally added subsequently based on the overall strategic goal mentioned earlier.

People have told me that it can be tricky getting buy-in from employees. What is your advice?

Seshan: Yes, agreed. Without buy-in from employees, any smart manufacturing implementation will not succeed. The main push back is typically due to the threat of losing employment or the perception of senior management “breathing down the neck” of operators because of the availability of data.

It is imperative that senior management assuage such concerns and is as inclusive as possible in its communications. Additionally, it helps if specific employee incentives — a promotion, bonus, or raise — are announced in a future time-frame on the condition the company improves certain key metrics linked to the sustained practice of smart manufacturing.

Can you give us an example of an SMM you have worked with, how adoption proceeded, and the end result?

Seshan: I can share an example of a Tier I supplier in the auto industry that had a few challenges.

The cost of quality was quite high since its manual inspection process was not 100% compliant with the quality plan. Management did not have one version of the truth on the status of plant floor operations as they were organized in silos and manufacturing information was collected on paper. Finally, it did not have visibility into the quality of supplier-delivered goods and often encountered defects in these supplies, which proved to be costly. After implementation of smart manufacturing, the Tier I supplier saw the following advantages:

Management was able to visualize day-to-day operations in real time using a dashboard without having to ask individual departments. All of the departments had access to the same information since the silos were broken, and so they were able to get one version of the truth. This provided actionable intelligence to proactively solve problems as opposed to reacting to them, thereby saving costs. Management was able to accurately monitor and track productivity-related KPIs. Computation of KPIs was done by a software app as opposed to error-prone manual computation.

  • The quality of each batch supplied by the company’s suppliers was tracked in real time, and suppliers dispatched batches only after approval provided by the company. This was enabled by horizontal integration between the suppliers and the Tier I. Due to this real-time visibility into supplier batch quality, the defect ppm reduced from 200 to 10 within three months.

  • The inspection process, which was error prone, had 100% compliance to quality based on an assisted reality app that guided the operator to perform the inspection process without errors or omissions. This resulted in on-time delivery of supplies and full traceability of every batch of production. As a consequence, the Tier I’s standing with its customer improved.

Sit down with Seshan at Plastec South.

Ananth Seshan, PhD, has developed online courses on smart manufacturing and is currently writing a textbook on Predictive Maintenance 4.0. His company has its headquarters in Ottawa with operations in the United States, Mexico, and India.

Seshan is scheduled to lead a session — Lessons Learned from Applying Smart Manufacturing to Small and Medium Manufacturers — at IME South in Charlotte, NC, on June 6 at 11 AM. The trade show and conference, which includes co-locates Plastec South and Medical Design & Manufacturing (MD&M) South, comes to the Charlotte Convention Center on June 4 to 6.


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