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Smart Manufacturing Moves You Can Make


Advancements in technology and data are driving affordable investments in smart manufacturing. Businesses can reduce waste and lost product, operate with less downtime and more energy efficiency, and support environmental goals by focusing attention on smarter, more optimized ways to build and store products. According to Quality Magazine, taking small steps to invest in automation through connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices, artificial intelligence (AI) and data analysis, mobile solutions and connected inventory management can deliver more predictable manufacturing and more efficient operations without the need for expensive new equipment or large-scale overhauls to your facility.

Automation Through IoT

IoT devices turn disconnected equipment and facilities into data sources that can communicate a wide variety of information and can automate tasks. These devices are made up of sensors and networks that constantly monitor your equipment, generating data that can be used to optimize repair and replacement or to better understand production efficiency. IoT devices can often be plugged into existing equipment or can be installed in your facility's machinery, reducing costs and allowing for fast implementation.

Sensors and IoT devices placed on equipment can play a key role in reducing waste and downtime. These sensors can report back vital operational data around activity and temperature, allowing staff to focus on efficiency and to develop custom maintenance plans to avoid catastrophic failure or unexpected downtime.

IoT devices also play a major role in improving energy efficiencies. They can track power consumption and heat loss, helping optimize operation times, maintenance and efficiency. The ability to see facilities at a glance also supports sustainability goals, alerting employees to signs of waste such as excessive power usage and heat so that they can correct issues before energy is wasted. 

Practical AI and Analytics

Today’s AI uses machine learning, which consists of computer programs that interpret large sets of data and find patterns to draw insights about your business and operations. According to McKinsey, AI is no longer a large investment and can instead help companies cost-effectively create and maintain their own data.

AI works by processing large, seemingly disconnected sets of data, such as manufacturing times, inventory figures, repair schedules and times of past shutdowns. These programs create trends out of the data, analyzing your business to predict likely outcomes. In a manufacturing facility, AI can target problems that could lead to unplanned downtime, waste and inventory shortages. McKinsey recommends introducing AI to individual parts of the facility over six to eight weeks, with pilot programs to ensure that employees can learn the technology without high external consulting costs.

AI-driven analytics programs can process data about your equipment, its scheduled repairs and past shutdowns to help predict which equipment could need repair and when. Maintenance teams can use this information to help prioritize their time around the equipment that actually needs servicing, while extending the operational life of equipment unlikely to fail. 

Mobile-First Facility Management

Mobile apps are paving the way for more efficient facilities management throughout the manufacturing process. Mobile apps can offer a window into information about your facility, enabling employees to find answers to questions faster. These apps can be purchased pre-configured for your existing IoT and data infrastructure, and they can be loaded onto employee-owned devices to save money, or onto company-issued devices to increase control over your data.

Mobile apps on the factory floor can play a role in elevating information in your facility, tying into inventory tracking, productivity monitoring and even control automation. Apps that connect to the inventory management system allow employees to check inventory, shop, and order parts and equipment when needed. Employees can verify inventory and prevent overstock at the source, thereby cutting waste.

For management, mobile and computer apps offer easy access to a “bird’s eye view” of the facility, showing uptime and downtime, equipment status, productivity data and the entire production lifecycle from raw materials through finished product. When paired with data from IoT devices or existing inventory tools, mobile apps can offer transparency and collaboration without workers guessing, monitoring equipment by hand or overlooking a problem.

Real-Time Inventory Monitoring

According to the International Society of Automation, over $1 trillion in cash is tied up in inventory. Updating inventory management systems with IoT devices provides real-time visibility across warehouses, production and distribution centers. This strengthening of legacy systems helps to lower inventory costs and reduce stocking errors, and improves overall efficiency by providing greater tracking, traceability, quality management and compliance.

According to the Journal of Cleaner Production, materials stored in inventory can also have an impact on the environment. When unused inventory materials go to waste, more materials need to be produced to replace them, and the impact on the environment increases. Modern inventory management is designed to use data from past orders and known needs to calculate what you should order and when. This approach helps avoid overstocking or understocking key items. Furthermore, inventory can be tracked in real time so that purchasing teams can spot potential shortages sooner, before understocking slows production or delays projects.

Transforming inventory management does not have to severely impact the budget or production. Because tracking happens in dedicated tools that connect to your existing ordering and payment systems, you can help reduce cost and complexity without the need to retrain workers and migrate to new tools.

Investing in modern, affordable solutions for smart manufacturing—including IoT, AI, and mobile and inventory management—can deliver financial and environmental benefits to your business. Learn more about Grainger’s solutions for connected inventory management.

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.