Ready to gain from smart factory real time capability?

I hear and read it periodically: executives giving feedback about their smart factory implementation highlight “the real-time capability given to teams to react to any drift or early warning about machine condition”.

To many listeners or readers, this resonates. In paper-and-pen days, data collection and analysis was painstakingly slow, often inaccurate and most often led to explain what happened post-mortem rather than to adjust or correct while the work was still in progress.

In comparison, getting the data and analysis real-time is an appealing quantum leap to managers in charge of performance improvement or operational excellence.

Yet more critical listeners or readers will raise some reservations about this simplistic advertisement for smarter technologies.

First, getting early warning about drifts was possible from the early 1920s when Walter A. Shewhart invented the control chart, making any adjustment possible while a production was still in progress. Plotting dots on such a chart could show a drift based on periodic measurements. It was later embedded in many machines’ control units to display the chart automatically and real-time. What the latest technologies may add is to monitor such chart remotely or send messages to the people in charge when those are not longer required to be near the machine to supervise it.

Second, getting noticed real-time does not mean that the reaction and corrective actions are real-time. In the “advertisement”, the human reactivity is assumed to be instantaneous or at least quick, which is far from certain. The promoted real-time notice of drifts or probable issues is then nothing more than a higher-tech enabler for teams to react soon enough to avoid the building up of a real problem. But wasn’t this the case with low-tech paper-and-pen charts already? So where is the quantum leap?

I would expect to hear and read that the machines are now able to auto-adjust themselves in case of drift or to self-heal themselves to a certain extend when early signs of very likely breakdowns are detected. This would be a quantum leap! But this would also mean that humans are no more that necessary, not really at the center of the smart factory. Not very politically correct.

My last disappointment about those articles or interviews is about the reporter’s gullibility, not challenging such a weak statement. It most often shows how little aware the reporters are about the reality of shop floor operations.

Finally, to answer my question in the title of this post, the readiness to gain from smart factory real-time capability doesn’t relate so much to more sensors, smarter devices or connected technologies but much more to the human ability and motivation to react swiftly. That is as long as human are still required.

View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn


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