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There's incredible potential for optimization.

Low cost lift-off: Smart factories embrace simulation, automation, and digital twins

David Vasko, an inventor, industrial advisor and board member

Gavin: How would you define smart manufacturing?

Dave: Smart manufacturing is the connecting of data developed on the manufacturing floor and the use of that data to perform analysis for organizations, allowing both computers and humans to optimize the process for whatever the intended purposes, be it increasing production, reducing waste, or increasing quality. Making that connection is the heart of smart manufacturing - that entire chain of creating the foundation, building it up and using that data.

G: How transformative has that been?

D: Incredibly transformative. It’s allowed manufacturers to take their operations, look at the data, and see things they've never seen before. There's incredible potential for optimization from this.

That transformative impact is accelerating in two dimensions: things get better, and the cost for entry becomes lower every year. That means more manufacturers adopt it. Larger manufacturers tend to be able to adopt the changes much faster, than the smaller. But as these changes become well known and cheaper to do, that pushes them down to small and medium manufacturers. It really lowers the opportunity cost to do this.

G: As a member of NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership Advisory Board, what is your priority for action?

D: To get the right information to people, so they know what to do and can make decisions. Small and medium-sized manufacturers just don't have time for a lot of experimentation like big companies do. The key is to make sure they invest their dollars wisely, to future-proof their operations and not lose that opportunity. Providing the right information at the right time is absolutely critical.

G: So what do you think is the current state of smart manufacturing globally?

D: It’s not universal. A lot of small and mid-sized manufacturers don't even have a basic security professional for their operations, so it is difficult. They need help from experts to be able to make these changes.

G: And if they don't get that help?

D: There really is attrition. If you're a small company supplying parts to a bigger company, you’d better be able to connect and have security systems in place to avoid causing a risk to your customer. If you don't – and some companies are hesitant, or unable to make the changes – then you're not going to survive.

G: So they can't afford to make the upfront investment, but they can't afford not to, either, as they're part of a supply chain?

D: Yes, that’s absolutely it. A lot of these smaller companies are held by the owners and their family, and transferred from generation to generation. But they don't always make it, and that’s sad.

G: What do you hope will be possible five to 10 years from now?

D: Obviously artificial intelligence will help to create a more level playing field. You can become more productive quickly, and as new people enter the workforce and try to understand what the best practices are, they can see and leverage the expertise out there. That's a baseline.

But I'm much more excited about simulation and digital twins. AI enables you to see what somebody has done and to compare actions against that, seeing the patterns that occur.  But simulation and the digital twin of a factory can provide you information for solutions nobody’s ever tried before. That can have extreme impacts and be incredibly transformative. That's really where the critical opportunities are in the future.

G: So, a relatively low-risk, low-cost lift-off for experimentation?

D: Well, one of the issues is that the modeling can be expensive, and you can spend a lot of time doing it. You’ll have to pick and choose where you’re going to do that. But there are applications using digital twins that are working today, and you’re going to see more and more of those, optimizing processes. Understanding disruptive technology is incredibly important for anyone leading change. Without that, you really aren’t looking at the future.

G: It also demands prioritization. The wrong choice can be a real profit killer.

D: Absolutely, yes. You want to look, from a manufacturing standpoint, at the biggest problems impacting you today and in the future, and then work on solutions towards those. And make sure you can measure those things. You can have a real impact. It sounds really simple, but it really is that simple.

But if you're just entering this because it's a cool technology, you’re going to be very surprised about the outcome.

G: Is that the biggest mistake that people make – “going digital” without any clarity about what, specifically, they're trying to achieve?

D: Yes, that’s absolutely it. You read about Industry 4.0 and want to install systems that support that. But if you can’t say what your problem is – how you can measure the state of it today and where you want to go – you're just shooting in the dark. You're not going to be able to really optimize your operation. You may be able to make improvements, but not in the most cost-effective way.

G: How important to global economic growth is continued standardization in this area?

D: It's crucial. When I was at Rockwell Automation, I managed the group heading all those standards engagements, and they really allow different companies to interconnect. Small companies can create new products that solve niche problems and interconnect with larger solutions. It's crucial, not just for small and medium-sized companies, but for large companies as well, to have that large base of suppliers working together to solve problems. Without that, you're doing customized solutions: it’s more expensive and doesn't have scale.

Digital transformations, Industry 4.0 – they all rely on standardization. Sustainability, too. The work done in eco-design in Europe is really defining the standards of how things are measured. That’s the crucial first step. Until you have the standards and the metrics, it's difficult to set goals or assess improvements.

G: The digital skills gap is another major issue. You’ve written that “the employee you're looking for may already be working at your company today.” How important is investment in existing staff and in continuous learning and adaptation?

D: I think it may be under-appreciated. The thing that keeps me awake most is that we don't have enough people to solve the problems ahead. Training people will get you part of the way, and manufacturers are always looking for talent. But somebody on the production floor watches stuff go by day in and day out. They see what works, and what doesn't. They're perfect candidates to bring into the process, to optimize your lines and make them more efficient. So, invest and bring your entire staff up a notch, for more impact. That’s a crucial thing to grapple with: increasing the productivity, value, and education in your current staff.

At Rockwell Automation, we also took former military veterans and, in an intensive 12-week program, brought them up to speed for manufacturing. We gave them the skills they needed – working with manufacturers – to be productive. The students don't pay a cent. They're paid, given room and board, and then walk out into a high-tech job. It’s important to get people into these jobs quickly, and to make a productive impact.

G: Is enough being done to address the disparity between the number of men and women in tech?

D: Innovation comes from diversity. You don’t put together 10 people with the same background and experience, and then expect an innovative breakthrough. It’s more important now than ever that we bring diverse sets of people together to drive future innovation. We've seen women step into those roles and be incredibly productive, and there’s just no reason that they can't be there, so we need to do more to attract and keep them.

G: Finally, what is your top tip to a manufacturing company boss still wavering as to whether or how to adopt smart tech?

D: You definitely have to get involved and do something. But do it incrementally. Start with the biggest problem you're facing, and look at how you can solve that, and as you apply the technology, try to create an infrastructure and a foundation that allows for future improvements. Once you solve that problem, take the money you saved and apply it to the next problem, and the next one and the next one. That allows you to be involved, to understand the changes that are happening. That's the best way to go.

G: So, start at the shallow end of the pool, don't jump in and splash about frantically at the deep end?

D: Yes, you’d hate to see people betting their entire business on the outcome of this if they don't really know what they're doing.

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