The connectivity of the Internet is changing the way products and services are made by transforming factories from process-defined production facilities into the centers of a new era of smart manufacturing. Customers, designers, and engineers can work together unlike ever before to innovate, streamline, and maintain quality products, evolving service from a model of "break-fix" to long-term maintenance and support.

Manufacturing Brilliance
How do you create a product? Manufacturing has historically been a somewhat linear process. Customer needs and R&D dictate a product's requirements and features. Designers and engineers turn those requirements into realistic specifications and schematics. Factories manufacture products following those schematics. If changes are needed, either production has to be stopped (an incredibly expensive decision), or the changes have to wait for the next iteration of a product.

And some changes, given the largely inflexible foundation laid out by the original design, will never be incorporated and instead will have to wait to make it into the next product. But what if designs could be updated while in production? What if field-testing, rapid prototyping, and customer-aided real-time design made it possible to create products that were of higher quality, accomplished more, and lowered long-term costs? Picture designers collaborating in real-time with customers, and the most up-to-date schematics being automatically downloaded to intelligent machinery on the production floor. Smart manufacturing is making those possibilities real, thanks to the revolution of the Industrial Internet.

Flexible, scalable, smart manufacturing requires a seamless flow of information between all the parties involved, including the very machinery responsible for carving out and assembling products. Previously, without the necessary level of connectivity and ubiquitous computing, smart manufacturing was all but impossible. Today, the Industrial Internet is creating the very foundation needed to make smart manufacturing possible by bringing together brilliant machines, analytics, and scalable software platforms to enable nearly instant person-to-person, person-to-machine, and machine-to-machine communication.

Big data technologies are already being used to catch production errors in real-time by manufacturers like Toyota, whose Kentucky and Alabama plants have used software platforms to save hundreds of thousands of dollars and minimize waste. As such improvements increase, the focus on service can shift from supporting specific products to maintaining a level of performance regardless of the equipment involved, a model known as "servitization."

You've Been Servitized
Assets -- whether they are aircraft engines, wind turbines, or electrical transformers -- have a limited lifespan. Over the course of that lifespan, they might break down, need maintenance, or require upgrades to meet performance demands. In the past, once an asset was designed, it was largely locked into production, and once deployed, any performance issues were treated through a "break-fix" model of service. As brilliant factories enable rapid feedback and limber changes to design on the factory floor, service can shift from focusing on the "break-fix" of specific products to ensuring a high level of performance for customers.

Aircraft engine manufacturers have begun to adopt the "servitization" model, and with the advent of sensor-outfitted smart engines, the ability to proactively maintain equipment to prevent failure, only enhances the case for servitization. Maintenance models also feed back into the brilliant factory, making it possible to "design for service," and incorporate features like sensors and onboard analytics to aid in the long-term monitoring and maintenance of product health.

From a systems perspective, designing for service is a much-desired, holistic approach to operational efficiency. The combination of brilliant factories and servitization not only creates a well-defined structure for quality assurance, it also provides end-to-end transparency for the entire system. The high-level information flow across the entire supply chain could empower decision makers to use analytics to optimize operations across the board and observe macrotrends that were previously undetectable.

Manufacturing is about to undergo a radical technological transformation, bringing it out of its historic, industrial roots into the modern, connected age. This era of the Industrial Internet has the potential to bring about the best of both worlds, combining efficient large-scale production with the rapid, flexible, scalable power of communications and big data.

About the author

GE Digital

Driving Digital Transformation

GE Digital connects streams of machine data to powerful analytics and people, providing industrial companies with valuable insights to manage assets and operations more efficiently. World-class talent and software capabilities help drive digital industrial transformation for big gains in productivity, availability and longevity. We do this by leveraging Predix, our cloud-based operating system, purpose built for the unique needs of industry.