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A Brilliant Factory with 20/20 Vision

The 2014 Big M Conference is taking place in Detroit this week, and how fitting that the future of manufacturing takes center stage in the Motor City. It was here where the modern assembly line was inspired and defined—a model for manufacturing growth and productivity.

Today, manufacturing is being redefined by a new line—a digital thread—which promises to increase the power of productivity well beyond what anyone can even imagine.

We’re used to being able to connect with people, buy things, and manage almost everything in our personal lives in an instant. Why shouldn’t we expect these same capabilities to exist on our factory floors, in essence creating the “Brilliant Factory?” With a fully connected digital process, they will.

Just how much of a difference could this digital integration make? By our calculation, it is a 20/20 vision that provides a clear line of sight to making our factories faster and more efficient by delivering:

  • 20 percent faster product development cycle.
  • 20 percent improvement in manufacturing and supply chain efficiency.

To understand the kind of impact percentages like these can have on manufacturing operations, just consider that each percentage point from a company as big as GE represents upwards of $500 million in potential savings. To put it mildly, that’s big.

In the 20th century, manufacturing growth was largely driven by the growth and capability of machines and tools. More recently, manufacturers have complemented these with smarter processes and more innovative systems-level thinking to get higher productivity out of their plants. The lean manufacturing principles pioneered by Toyota, for example, illustrate well the successes many have found in devising faster, more efficient ways of making products.

In the 21st century, the Internet revolution and the quantum advances in software and information technology already have transformed our everyday lives as consumers. From our mobile devices, we can be anywhere and perform any number of tasks in real-time. We can call or text our spouse and ask them what they want for dinner, order a pizza or meal from our favorite restaurant, text the kids to be home by 6 p.m. and, because it might be a hot summer day, remotely turn on the air conditioner to cool the house before everyone arrives home from work.

GE already is translating the power of the Internet to our products and services. We’re drawing sensor data off of our products like jet engines to predict when they will need maintenance so that repairs are scheduled and never unplanned. We manufacture locomotives that have software on board that can optimize how a train is driven for maximum fuel efficiency. And we’re even beginning to have our turbines on a wind farm interact or “talk” to each other to coordinate power generation and delivery in more efficient and effective ways.

Robots are shown on the assembly line of the new 2015 Chrysler 200 at the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant March 14, 2014 in Sterling Heights, Michigan. The plant, originally slated for closure in 2010, was transformed by an investment of more than $1 billion and is now one of
the Chrysler Group’s largest and most technologically advanced, with more than 5 million square feet of manufacturing space.
Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Now, GE is bringing the power of the Internet and the digital world to our factory floors and the factories of our suppliers to improve the productivity of our plants. We want an ecosystem of product designers, virtual manufacturing engineers, factory floor operators, and our supply chain partners to communicate as seamlessly as we communicate with our families to plan dinner. The infrastructure and technology exists, but it needs to be brought together and connected. But as anyone who understands manufacturing knows, that’s easier said than done. We’re dealing with a very complex system that has a mix of both connected and disparate parts.

At GE, we have thought long and hard about how to transform the 21st century factory from vision to reality. It will really be built on the shoulders of four major pillars, which are:

Virtual manufacturing
Today we can virtually design a product or part and simulate how it’s manufactured before it even reaches a real factory floor. But there are gaps in design and simulation capabilities across different parts of the manufacturing supply chain. Moreover, many of our virtual design and simulation capabilities are not connected. GE is working to build connections where there are gaps both within our own manufacturing operations and with our supply chain partners.

Intelligent Machines
If you have ever toured the factory floor of a high volume automotive plant, you were likely amazed by the amount of automation and intelligence built into machines that are enabled by sensors that collect and transmit data where it needs to go. However, gaps still exist even in automotive plants. Substantially larger gaps exist in low volume and/or older factories which lack sensor-enabled automation capability. Not every machine, for example, is collecting data. On the other hand, some may collect data but may not be connected to any other part of the plant to make better use of it. GE is working to address these gaps, so that we have machines on our factory floors that operate at the optimal point of performance, are in constant communication with the factory system, and never fail without warning.

Flexible Factories
Ask a plant manager what they want the most, and the answer will likely be having the capacity to change operations in real-time to maximize productivity efficiency and agility. The assembly line represented a huge leap in productivity for factories, but try to make data-driven system-optimal real-time adjustments and changes to the production process and you will find it difficult to do. GE is working to transform its factory floors into more flexible operations that will allow for more rapid and easier data-driven changes in our manufacturing processes. Only then can we truly create a factory that never stops.

Reconfigurable Supply Chains
Many of today’s factories are built to mass produce a few types of products, but we’re increasingly living in a world where customers or clients want their own customized solutions. Global companies like GE need to offer products that vary widely from one region to another—hence the ability to customize rapidly is essential. And so we are working closely with our supply chains to find ways that we can more easily reconfigure our operations to produce customized products. Furthermore, our customers expect shorter and shorter lead-times and the agility of our manufacturing and supply chain operations is becoming a competitive weapon. To enable the required agility we need to have perfect visibility into our supply chain to optimize inventory and fulfillment.

To build what we call a Brilliant Factory—or a 21st century digital model—each of the four pillars will need a strong IT infrastructure that ties the manufacturing supply chain together and creates data highways for information to be transmitted wherever it needs to go. It also will require a common software platform that can integrate all of the data systems of a company’s manufacturing operations. These are both pieces GE is building to provide that IT support network. Once in place, this IT backbone will require analytics to transfer data into information and knowledge that can be used to optimize operations. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, it will provide a closed feedback loop through our service shops that will enable improvements to manufacturing and design using data from how a product was built, used and serviced.

These four pillars will be essential for companies to thrive in an increasingly interconnected and competitive global economy, spurred by an accelerating pace of technological change. Supply chains are fully globalized, and, as we have already experienced, exposed to geophysical and geopolitical shocks—reacting fast is a must. More and more countries are competing head to head to realize faster gains in their people’s incomes, and greater productivity and efficiency are an imperative for both companies and governments. Brilliant factories will be the green engine that makes strong global growth sustainable. In turn, the brilliant factories’ digital thread will make the links within the global economy more efficient and resilient, enabling further productivity gains and faster progress in innovation.

GE’s effort to build a fully connected digital thread is critically important, but many others are involved as well. Building the digital thread is a core mission of President Obama’s National Manufacturing Initiative. His recently announced Digital Manufacturing Innovation Institute, led by UI Labs and which GE is a key industry partner, has assembled a diverse team involving industry, government and academia to promote new technologies and skills to make the digital thread a reality. This Institute will enable our small and medium suppliers to become more innovative and competitive both through education in and access to digital tools.

The Brilliant Factory is still mostly a vision today, but its implementation is in clear sight as GE and others work to connect all of the digital pieces. And as we have seen how the internet has changed consumers lives so quickly in less than a decade, the changes to industry could prove to be just as sweeping.

Stephan Biller is chief manufacturing scientist for GE Global Research; Marco Annunziata is chief economist for GE

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