How “smart” is a smart factory?

Hilaal Alam
6 min readSep 25, 2017


Start with SMART Eco system

Smartness in industries is usually associated with the intelligence of a system which helps bring out hidden losses in production in order to maximize productivity. In Industrial IOT (IIOT), the smartness (generally) denotes the communication across the organization and dynamic translation of the data into intelligence with the minimal amount of resources.

Here, the Industrial IOT systems differentiate itself from the commercial IOTs, in making crucial decisions that affect the functionality of an organization and its stakeholders. Unlike the commercial IOT, the industrial IOT needs the combination of human and machine intelligences and their interactions to create a smart environment in the long run. It is well beyond just using the big data. The big data analyses are reactive approach!

Reactive is NOT being smartness but Proactive is…!

Usually the reactive approaches cause the firefighting in many instances while the proactiveness do not. But being proactive takes a huge time and efforts in building such a solid culture which is appreciated as smart culture. In line with this, the industrial IOT systems are defined as a realtime tracker or a fast root cause analysis system. This kind of real time and reactive approaches lead to a very narrowed definition of IIoT or smart factory. Most of the IIoT designs are based on reactive approaches and make use of big data for machine learning to become proactive in the future.

Are we missing something vital here? Is this not based on our assumption that the design and manufacturing processes will remain stable? As and when the product evolves faster, based on the market needs and reactions, above design and manufacturing process will continue to change. In this scenario, how much of the big data will be useful for data scientists?

Well, there are ways to fix it. It is not advisable to rely on big data on everything always. Combining the big data and moving towards the “proactive thick data” will be a key for the success of a business in the future. This will take the factories towards the real smart environment by being proactive in approaches. By using the big data of product performance in the market and by adopting various intelligence methods for customer requirements analysis, the future trend of product can be realized. Here come thick data to help the industries predict the future of the product trends. So, the information itself should be smart.

Smart Information and smart energy…!

In addition to the machines, the automation should play a major role in material handling by Self Driving Vehicles so that unexpected human obstructions are completely avoided on the floor. The facility to achieve this environment needs the smooth synchronization of communication exchange based on the accumulated and the real time data. It also uses artificial intelligence for decision making and task implementations.

The real smartness is NOT just to sense, even the subtle information such as the vibration of the systems in order to predict the life expectancy of crucial parts like bearings. It is also about flagging of optimal maintenance schedules, to prevent the vibration itself, by not causing frequent shutdowns or leaving a very long gap in services. Here come the predictive maintenance of the machines and instruments what usually IIOT is thought to be meant for.

Energy, on the other hand plays a crucial role in smart factories. Though it was less talked subject, the conservation of energy through the energy reusability is a serious but much ignored topic in industrial IOT. Most of the industries are not energy efficient as per a survey published in 2016 ( For instance, two — third of the heat energy is emitted as waste into the atmosphere in the processing industries. By reusing the energy or by converting them into electricity, various benefits can be realized. Drives towards the renewable energy are the most crucial step forward in realizing the smart energy environment. Smartness should essentially be reflected in energy and information to improve the efficiency of the entire eco-system to improve the value chain of the system.

Smart values (Opportunities & Environment)…!

Recently the smart factory is becoming the buzzword with the potential of $50 billion by market valuation in 2016, with 12% of compound annual growth rate. Of course, the reliable market data is yet to be found. I have seen a large, varied market projections such as $150b and $75b in 2022. However, it would be difficult to predict the market beyond this point since the landscape of technology changes more rapidly than before.

The dynamics of industrial IOT will be high largely in China owing to its global dominance in various prominent segments. It is likely to drive and show the world a way forward through its dominance in manufacturing environment. Next, a majority of the leading companies manufactures their products in developing countries, including Asia Pacific regions where small factories spurt out since the last decade. BRICS nations followed by Middle East and African countries are very appealing destination for smart factories.

Being highly and densely populous countries, the transformation of employment opportunities in these sectors will not only be challenging, but also may drastically change the style of the workforce. While the environmental concern will be a big challenge in this type of approach, the job scope will be entirely different. The planet will be more of the freelancers kind of consultants with enormous freedoms, and filled with wealth creation opportunities.

Future of Smart Factory…!

The smart factory looks to be very attractive for automotive segments due to its squeezing margins and stringent guidelines. It along with transportation is likely to remain as the largest end-user application segment in the global smart factory market. The semiconductor industries will be the next end-user.

Unlike the other technologies, the manufacturing technology is a relatively slow “transformer” due to its heavy capital expenditure and long return of the investment. Despite of that, the conventional manufacturing has been undergoing lots of changes in the last decade. At present the change is radically transforming due to ubiquitous, cheap connectivity and hardware from machines to finished products.

If you look around, many of the products you see would be of polymers. Polymers also dominate as components almost in every product. 3D printing technology is growing fast and may soon occupy almost every R&D / technology company. The falling cost of this technology will likely change the face of manufacturing segments and in fact, it may kill the mass manufacturing systems in future, if not soon. If you need any replacement components, you can get it 3D printed or from the fabricator who has 3D printing facility nearby.

Assume a scenario. The future will work not on the mass production; but on the Product on Demand (PoD). Assume you need a car of a particular brand. All you have to pay is only for the blueprint that could be machine readable only once and the blueprint becomes invalid after the quality check of the product is passed ok. The car manufacturer would send the one — time — machine readable — blueprints (OTMB) to the various fabricators online. All the components would be fabricated and quality checked at various places. The 3D scanning technology integrated with optical inspection facilities (such as speckle metrology or machine vision) can do the quality checks. Finally, they would arrive at the automated assembly station where robots assemble them before the car is delivered to you. The growth of blockchain technology will enable this in a more efficient manner including the certification process. The OTMB will be validated for one time use and will work only on authorized machines which follow certain protocol to prevent duplication or piracy of designs. The above may be a wild guess; but not impossible.

Though the mass manufacturing reduces the unit cost of the product, PoD will reduce the product cost even further. No dedicated product lines, no huge overhead costs are needed to cover in the product cost. The cost of the OTMB will cover the distributed cost of R&D, human power and IP costs etc. The fabrication will take place where low quote is obtained. The die and tooling will become more standardized. The only concern would be the speed of the 3D printing as of now. In this vast but fully automated eco-system, the job scope will be very limited. As Jack Ma of Alibaba warns, “Stop looking for manufacturing growth for jobs”, the different job scopes, such as robot co-ordinator (distant or local), data scientists, blockchain mining are visible on opportunity radar. So the future is very exciting!



Hilaal Alam

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