The Future of Smart Manufacturing: Continuing the Conversation

Mike Molnar, Director, Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office, National Institute of Standards & Technology
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Mike Molnar, Director, Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office, National Institute of Standards & Technology

A principal mission of our team is building partnerships. Fundamentally, this means enabling connection and communication between policymakers, manufacturers large and small, academic researchers, and thought leaders—looking across the spectrum for ways to make the United States as competitive as it can possibly be.

So I spend a lot of time listening to people. Maybe more time listening than talking. In that vein, I’d like to pick up a thread from Vince Campisi’s outstanding February 2015 post in this magazine, “CIOs and Factories of the Future: IT and Advanced Manufacturing Will Be Interdependent.” As he noted, the modern factory is characterized by three main shifts:

Information convergence: “IT and OT (operational technology) are finally merging,”
Information richness: “Big Data and advanced analytics,” and
Information omnipresence: “Access real-time information, anywhere and anytime.”

In this new world, the role of the CIO is dramatically expanded—some might say infinite. CIOs serve up the infrastructure upon which all automation depends. They must harvest all the company’s information and serve it back with real insights. They’re also the gatekeepers of company’s data for an increasingly globetrotting, remotely located, tele-working staff.

And so the essential, practical question for CIOs is obvious: “Given that smart manufacturing is changing the production process from top to bottom, what do I need to know in order to manage that effectively?”

The National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, which is coordinated by our interagency office, is working with U.S. businesses to address this question. The answers are vital to the future success of all U.S. manufacturers. Even the smallest local company now competes in a global marketplace, where efficiency and speed to market make all the difference. All must be “lean, mean, and ready” with fully secure, flexible, and scalable manufacturing processes.

To understand the modern factory, therefore, one must first understand that it is nothing like the factory of the past, for five reasons:

Cloud computing: There is no longer a need for on-site management of a physical server, no limit to the amount of data one can store or access, and no need to calculate data requirements in advance—the system expands and contracts as needed. We can now connect production tools together in a virtual location— forming a single, uninterrupted chain of production. According to a recent report in Forbes, 78 percent of U.S. small and medium-size businesses will have adopted cloud computing by 2020.

Internet of Things: Any object that can move data over a network and be assigned an Internet Protocol (IP) address can be connected to the Internet. For example, imagine you’re running a factory assembling cars. The machines can now “tell” each other when wear and tear threatens to cause an accident, or when an intruder may be trying to access the network. According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, more than one in three U.S. manufacturers (34 percent) believes it “extremely critical” to have an IoT strategy.

“The United States is not the only country investing in advanced manufacturing, and with the Internet and social media, innovations diffuse worldwide more rapidly than ever before”

“Smart sensors”: These are the actual objects placed inside a machine, a single part, or materials, to collect and transmit data about process performance. The same PWC study found that 35 percent of U.S. manufacturers already use these sensors for greater efficiency, and 38 percent embed them in products so that customers can collect sensor-generated data of their own.

Internet everywhere: Not only are our everyday objects routinely connected, but the Internet itself is growing to embrace the remotest regions of the Earth. For example, as the Wall Street Journal reported last year, Google plans to spend upwards of $1 billion on satellites for this purpose.

Instantly aware supply chain: In addition to all of the above, radio frequency identification (RFID) now enables companies to track their items as they move through production and into warehouses and stores. RFID tags hold more data than barcodes, can be read from a greater distance, and don’t need to be seen directly by a scanner.

The United States is driving forward to learn how best to take advantage of these new developments and to train the relatively scarce, high-value “production workers” of the future. These are the people who will be designing, managing, and troubleshooting the IT systems that power the full manufacturing and supply chain.

The United States remains a top innovator in this rapidly changing landscape. But the declining trends in our manufacturing capabilities over the past two decades are problematic for U.S. competitiveness. The basic problem: A lack of investment in closing the manufacturing capabilities gap between brilliant prototypes, on the one hand, and product commercialization on the other so that technologies we invent in the U.S. can also become profitable products.

All business professionals find themselves in this new “sink or swim” environment, and by and large there are few guideposts.

To address the problem, in 2012, the White House launched our program after years of study and a report by our nation’s top manufacturing thinkers, Report to the President on Capturing Domestic Competitive Advantage in Advanced Manufacturing.

The program oversees the network of institutes, each one a federally-funded partnership. Today, there are five facilities already launched, four in the works, and 36 additional centers planned over the course of the next decade. One of them, the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII), focuses specifically on the manufacturing process itself—what we call “the digital thread”—and aims to optimize the IT infrastructure that powers modern manufacturing facilities.

One significant issue the DMDII hopes to resolve that is pertinent for CIOs is the need for interoperability between different software platforms used in digital manufacturing.

The United States is not the only country investing in advanced manufacturing, and with the Internet and social media, innovations diffuse worldwide more rapidly than ever before.

IT professionals can safeguard their careers by becoming aware of these key trends, and then demonstrating the ability to offer strategic value-add as the company makes core decisions about how to maximize profit margins and maintain a razor-sharp competitive edge. A great way to do that is by staying on top of the changes digital innovations are bringing to manufacturing, through the NNMI and other initiatives.

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