'Smart' factories bring many benefits – but introduction is far from simple

Tanya Weaver

Schneider Electric has smart factories around the world that have implemented EcoStruxure, the company’s IoT-enabled, open-source platform and architecture (Credit: Schneider Electric)
Schneider Electric has smart factories around the world that have implemented EcoStruxure, the company’s IoT-enabled, open-source platform and architecture (Credit: Schneider Electric)

Smart factories could contribute $2 trillion to the global economy over the next five years, according to the recently published Smart Factories @ Scale study from the Capgemini Research Institute.

The prefix ‘smart’ implies intelligence, meaning that all elements of the factory are equipped with integrated computing power and digital technologies that allow for connectivity, intelligent automation and data exchange. By leveraging these digital technologies factories will gain improvements in productivity, quality, flexibility and customer service. 

However, making a factory ‘smart’ does require substantial investment. And, according to the Capgemini study, while manufacturers are planning on creating 40% more smart factories in the next five years, there are key challenges.   

One of these is the integration of information technology (IT) systems used for business processes with operational technology (OT) systems that are used to monitor devices, events and industrial processes. This is known as IT-OT convergence and includes the deployment of digital platforms. These platforms are the foundation that controls the smart factory and, according to the Capgemini study, the current market for smart manufacturing platforms is $4.4bn, and this is expected to grow by 20% over the next five years. 

Fast-moving robots

Creating such platforms is something that Cambridge Consultants is deeply involved in. It worked with online grocery retailer Ocado to create its warehouse automation solution, specifically the wireless control system for the automated picking. 

Ocado ships more than two million items every day to customers around the UK. Overhauling its warehousing system, which now hosts 1,000 fast-moving robots, and utilising its new Ocado Smart Platform (OSP), the retailer is able to control these robots simultaneously, each to within a fraction of a second. This means that a 50-item order can be assembled in five minutes.

Beyond warehouse automation, the platform is also scaleable and can be used for functions such as planning and supply-chain logistics.

Derek Long, Cambridge Consultants’ head of telecoms and mobile, says: “A really exciting development in warehouse automation is the platforms and APIs that expose functionality to developers and overlying business support systems. One could imagine a future in which a factory that is integrated into a larger supply chain is controlled by an overlying service that controls the entire supply chain. In a similar manner in which a cloud-based service calls on a virtualised function via an API so in future the device may call on a physical process in a similar manner.”

Other organisations are demonstrating similar benefits from deploying platforms to transform their facilities into smart factories. For example, the Capgemini study cites Schneider Electric, a French multinational specialising in energy management and automation. A few years ago the company started piloting its EcoStruxure solution – an Internet of Things-enabled, plug and play, open architecture and platform – and the solution is now deployed in 70 of its factories. These smart factories enable it to leverage digitisation across its supply-chain operations to deliver end-to-end integration and visibility.

Realistic goals

The benefit to Schneider Electric is that it enhances performance. While there is mounting pressure on organisations to make a similar shift to smart factories, Long says that before making the jump they should focus on what they want to achieve with the new technologies and what change it will bring to their operations. “Organisations should insist on their vendors offering solutions customised to meet their needs and integrated into their environments.”

He has further sage advice to add: “We’re just starting the smart factory journey, and from a technology perspective certain things are possible, but it is also important to consider the human angle. 

“How do processes and cultures need to change to make the most of these technologies?” 

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 


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