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Tab Wilkins


Five Steps to Being a ‘Smarter’ Manufacturer

Resolve to check out these resources

Published: Tuesday, December 12, 2017 - 12:02

There’s no question the digital manufacturing revolution is racing at us. As a small or medium-sized manufacturer, how close are you to already being “smart?” Here are five steps in the journey to becoming a smarter digital enterprise.

First and foremost, be cybersecure. Cybersecurity is an underlying tenet of being a smart and trusted business partner. The more you rely on a digital platform for manufacturing, the more secure you’ll want to be for customers, suppliers, and investors. The NIST MEP website has several cybersecurity resources for manufacturers to help them on this quest.

Second, understand smart manufacturing. Two formal definitions come from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition. Essentially, smart manufacturing is the idea of integrating all your technology together for monitoring, management, and improvement. An excellent blog post by Steven Brand of the California Manufacturing Technology Consultants (CMTC), the California MEP, goes into this in some detail as it relates to small and medium-sized-manufacturers, and even offers a downloadable version of CMTC Guide to Smart Manufacturing.

Third, realize there’s likely to be “flow down” through any supply chain. Most large manufacturers and retailers, both in the United States and around the world, are investing in smart technologies, according to the recent report “Smart Factories: How can manufacturers realize the potential of the digital industrial revolution?” by the Capgemini Group and its subsidiary, Sogeti. They found 76 percent of larger manufacturers have a smart manufacturing initiative, while 56 percent have invested $100 million or more during the last five years. As larger companies invest and deploy, smart manufacturing is likely to permeate the supply chain, like the way just-in-time, lean, and ISO 9001 requirements became a stated or de facto requirement.

Fourth, research the current state around you. For example, GAMEP, the Georgia MEP, co-sponsors a study every two to three years about Georgia manufacturers. Smart Manufacturing: The 2016 Georgia Manufacturing Survey shows that 49 percent of Georgia manufacturers electronically collect and analyze data for improvement. Pages 10 and 11 of the report illustrate specific technologies and rates of adoption, such as RFID for inventory and warehouse tracking, or software for scheduling, inventory control or purchasing (e.g., ERP). Which of the 20 technologies listed in the report have your competitors already adopted? 

Fifth, take an inventory and benchmark your smart status. Are you using computer-aided design (CAD) technology, and is it integrated with your computer numerical control (CNC) equipment? Are you using a manufacturing resource planning (MRP) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) software system? Is your preventive maintenance kept electronically, and are sensors used in your manufacturing processes? Some of these represent the basic building blocks of being smart and mean your company might be close. The next step is connecting and integrating these elements for data access and monitoring. Look on page 10 of the Capgemini Smart Factories report cited above, and see if you are a “digital master, fashionista, conservative, or beginner” in smart manufacturing.

After learning more about smart technology and benchmarking your company, if you’d like further help, please contact your local MEP center. They have additional assessments, tools, advice, and counsel on how to invest wisely in this impending wave of Technology 4.0.

First published Nov. 15, 2017, on the Manufacturing Innovation blog.


About The Author

Tab Wilkins’s picture

Tab Wilkins

Tab Wilkins is a regional manager for strategic transition and a senior technology advisor at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), primarily supporting MEP centers in the western United States. Wilkins helped establish and run two MEP centers and has a varied background in nonprofit management, leadership development, and technology-based economic development.