For a very long time, modern technology has been looked upon as something only the magnanimous has access to and can benefit from. This is especially evident in the manufacturing industry, where there has been a continuous tendency to associate smart manufacturing with big enterprises, when, in reality, it is the small and medium-sized enterprises that stand to truly benefit from the adoption of smart technologies. 

Why democratization in smart manufacturing matters 

Manufacturers, big and small, constantly stumble upon many roadblocks on the road to Industry 4.0. Although much is being said about the benefits of Industry 4.0, the truth is, not every organization is able to scale the technologies they’ve invested in and the innovations they’ve tested. 

Although almost every manufacturing company today is vying their smart technology options, despite the efforts being put towards accelerating digitization and the Industry 4.0 journey, not everyone in the industry is able to drive tangible value from their manufacturing business – mainly because of the absence of democratization and inadequate analysis of data generated by devices, people, and processes. 

Contrary to the popular belief that the democratization of smart manufacturing is either not beneficial, or impossible to achieve, the truth is, the industry – which has witnessed a lack of data standards for way too long – stands to benefit greatly from it. When done right, democratization can play a major role in accelerating the adoption and implementation of smart manufacturing solutions, with a dramatic impact on value and revenue. It can help manufacturers in reducing plant downtime, eliminating bottlenecks, and improving product quality – resulting in significant cost savings. 

For smaller manufacturers that tend to work on extremely tight margins, the most worthwhile returns will be in the form of productivity and efficiency. With less equipment and even lesser resources, democratization will ensure the workforce is consistently driving the right efforts, in the right places, and at the right times. 

Busting popular democratization myths 

Almost every manufacturing company today has an ambitious Industry 4.0 initiative in place that requires them to start gathering and analyzing the information generated by their plant and equipment. Although much of the momentum behind smart manufacturing is driven by larger organizations, there are several compelling reasons why smart manufacturing is extremely valuable for smaller organizations – not just in terms of improved efficiency, but also in terms of faster realization of benefits and ROI. 
Yet, when it comes to making the argument in favor of smart manufacturing for SMEs, the many myths surrounding the topic cause them to refrain from embarking on the journey. 

  • Myth 1: Smart manufacturing requires a high level of capital investment, a major overhaul of existing systems, or massive implementation of new infrastructure. 
  • Myth 2: Existing processes, tools, and systems are too siloed in nature and make it extremely difficult for data to be collected from disparate sources and analyzed for actionable insight.
  • Myth 3: Implementation of smart technology inevitably requires substantial in-house IT support or third-party expertise – the lack of which can cause the enterprise-wide initiative to nosedive. 
  • Myth 4: The adoption of new technology by the baby boomers will be extremely tricky, considering how comfortable they are making their way around outdated legacy systems. 
  • Myth 5: The ROI of smart manufacturing is difficult to identify and calculate in advance, and often requires years of constant efforts for efforts and investment to pay off 

Enabling successful democratization

Smaller manufacturing organizations are known to be focused and agile, and often adopt a more cautious and careful approach to new technology investment. 
Successful democratization of smart manufacturing would require them to take baby steps in a phased manner: 

Start small

Introduce smart manufacturing in specific areas rather than throughout the entire organization – and as an integral part of the broader digital transformation strategy. This not only makes it easier to monitor results, but as experience grows and lessons are learned, organizations can then incrementally deploy solutions applications across locations, servers, and timeframes and extend the solutions to the larger enterprise. 

Embrace an open architecture

Instead of adopting systems with rigid foundations, it pays to embrace scalable and open architecture solutions. These solutions can enable multiple smart manufacturing solutions under a single umbrella that securely connect machines, employees, and processes and unlock new data-driven capabilities.

Go low-code/no-code:

SMEs looking to make their mark in the fast-paced market can benefit greatly by adopting low-code/no-code solutions. These solutions can help in adapting to rapidly fluctuating customer requirements, changing direction as necessary, and innovating accordingly – thus strengthening their competitive position. 

 Leverage AI and ML

Another way SMEs can democratize smart manufacturing is by leveraging the capabilities of machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies. These technologies can aid in constantly monitoring and tracking systems and equipment, delivering timely insights into performance, issues, and bottlenecks – while alerting frontline staff to determine and take the right corrective actions. 

Invest in a modern IIoT platform

Investing in a modern IIoT platform is a great way to accelerate the democratization process. A platform, with consistent and cohesive features for data collection, data processing, and dashboards and analytics, can help in unearthing the right insights while combing them to produce real-world solutions faster, and with lower risk

As data becomes the new oil, enterprises – regardless of their size or type – need to exploit it to drive better efficiencies and results. Although large enterprises might appear to have an upper hand at smart manufacturing success, the truth is, the very nature of smaller organizations makes them a perfect fit. Flatter structures, a continuous focus on agility, and limited budget, resources, and equipment make smart manufacturing just as effective for SMEs. 

Building Industry 4.0 solutions around the principles of democratization and accessibility can aid in the easy, continuous, and secure movement of data across the manufacturing landscape, thus allowing organizations to create sustained value and results – regardless of their size.