August 16, 2018
The Elements of a Smart Factory
by Guest Blogger
In some ways, “smart factories” can still sound like a futuristic idea. But as forward-looking manufacturers continue to tap into the potential of advanced technologies and deploy connected systems, fenestration professionals should be continually looking at ways to drive their businesses forward on the plant floor—or risk getting left behind.
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Industry 4.0 is upon us. Experts expect the smart factory market to grow significantly over the next five years. And at Quanex, we’ve been having the conversation about Plant Transformation with customers all over the country. Investment in automated equipment and the systems that tie everything together continues to gain traction, helping manufacturers become better at what they do.
The drive toward continuous improvement isn’t anything new in the manufacturing space; it’s what we’ve done for decades. But with new ways of making it happen, the pace is accelerating at a rapid clip. And smart factories are the next step in that evolution.
What goes into tomorrow’s successful smart factory? It’s easy to focus on the technology—the equipment, the sensors, the software, cloud computing… the list goes on.
People. The heart of any manufacturing operation, today and tomorrow, is its people. But it takes continuous investment in our workforces to help us get the most out of new technologies on the plant floor.
As our industry has faced difficulty finding and keeping good labor, automation has helped fenestration shops maintain and grow their businesses with fewer people manning the lines. That means those people are more important than ever. We have the responsibility to continue providing our people the training, the information and the opportunity to succeed with the new technology that’s revolutionizing our plant floors. Employees of the future should be knowledgeable about digital platforms, software systems, and new equipment and its associated maintenance tasks. Plant managers must be putting in the work to help their teams succeed.
Process. Manufacturing has always thrived on following established best practices and processes. But getting the most of new equipment and new systems requires fundamental changes in how things are best accomplished.
Just because you’ve “always done it that way” doesn’t mean it’s the right way. For instance: The availability of new software systems and barcoding technology, helping manufacturers effectively track products throughout the plant, effectively eliminates the need for paper documentation and tracking processes. Get rid of the paper—it’s one extra complication that you don’t need.
Importantly, any new process should be established before the new equipment is installed. How will a new IG line be implemented into your current plant flow? What does the new maintenance schedule look like? Which teams will be responsible? Think of these things first, and allow for flexibility once your operation gets accustomed to the new systems and equipment.
Relationships. When making a significant operational change, a good working relationship with your vendors and raw materials suppliers can be invaluable.
An automated line for IG production means you’ll be able to make more units faster—and that you’ll need to feed that line enough components to meet potential. Are your suppliers nimble enough to meet your needs? Are they knowledgeable on how automation is reshaping your operation? Do their products work well with your new equipment? It’s all critical as the fenestration industry marches toward the future.
Questions or comments? Contact me directly at Larry.Johnson@Quanex.com.