If you’ve read any manufacturing blogs or publications lately, you will have seen a lot of the same buzzwords pop up again and again. Industry 4.0, Industrial Internet of Things, Additive Manufacturing, Smart Factory, etc. It’s a lot to take in and all very confusing for small manufacturers who are just trying to stay afloat in the hyper-digital post-COVID world. It’s no wonder that Small and Medium Manufacturers (SMMs) lag behind their larger counterparts when it comes to Manufacturing Digitization. 

Thankfully, the path to digitization is more manageable than many SMM operators think. Many SMMs are already on that path without even realizing it. Through the strategic deployment of Industrial PCs and Rugged Industrial Tablets, alongside other digital tech, you can bring your business into the future of manufacturing.

Small Manufacturers Lag Behind

There are no two ways around it; Small and Medium Manufacturers have been slow to digitize. Many are still stuck in the 20th century. In fact, according to a 2019 Tools Group whitepaper cited by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, 58% of SMMs are still in the exploring and evaluating stages of digitization. That means over half of small manufacturers are still at step one of the digitization process.

The problem isn’t isolated to the United States. SMMs all over the world are struggling to digitize. 

South Korean SMMs still often run off out-of-date analog tech. In Japan, a business culture resistant to technology and an aging workforce have led to the late adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies. Australian SMMs have been hesitant to invest in digital technologies because of cost. In Europe, SMMs find themselves interested in digitization but overwhelmed and unsure where to begin. And in the US, many SMMs are simply unaware of the latest tech and how digitization can help them. They think digitization simply means going paperless.

If these manufacturers want to keep up with the larger companies in the future, they will need to catch up with new technology and quickly.

Digitization Hesitancy

According to the NIST, the reasons SMMs give for their digitization hesitancy can be broken down into five categories:

  • Digital technologies are too new, disruptive, and could create chaos and add confusion to operations as they are implemented.
  • Digital Manufacturing Tech is too expensive for smaller manufacturers to afford and should instead be left to large companies with bigger budgets.
  • Digitization is just about machines, robots, and the IoT – things many manufacturers just do not see the need for
  • Digitization creates unnecessary security risks
  • Many SMMs feel it’s already too late to digitize

Benefits of Digitization

Fortunately, digitization is less stressful, more affordable, and easier to implement than many SMM operators fear. While digitization can be a scary prospect, you don’t have to risk your entire operation on brand new, untested tech. In fact, according to the NIST, “As a general rule, the easiest Industry 4.0 processes to implement will rely on technology that has existed for a while, which drives costs down and reduces the barrier to entry.”

Predictive Maintenance

Anyone who’s set foot on a factory floor immediately understands how difficult it must be to maintain all that heavy machinery and equipment. No machine lasts forever, especially when pressed into use day in, day out, for years, and manufacturing equipment is no exception. On top of that, even small manufacturers often rely on massive, extremely complicated machines that take extensive training and specialized parts to repair. If just one of these machines breaks down, it can put a factory out of commission for days and even weeks. 

In order to avoid these kinds of catastrophic machine failures, most manufacturers rely on preventative maintenance. Obviously, it’s cheaper and less disruptive to do minor repairs regularly than it is to do major repairs when things break down.  Digital tech like Industrial Tablets, however, can help you take preventative maintenance to the next level with “Predictive maintenance.” 

What is predictive maintenance? Predictive maintenance addresses the main flaw of preventative maintenance: machines can develop issues and fail in between scheduled maintenance times. Instead of relying on a regular rolling schedule, predictive maintenance uses data from digital sensors integrated into the machinery itself to determine precisely when a device will need repair. Factory workers can see the status of each machine from an Industrial Panel PC or a Rugged Industrial Tablet and know exactly what needs fixing and when, before anything fails.

For SMMs, this is a game-changer. Now, rather than flying blind, they can track the exact status of each and every major piece of equipment they own in real-time, saving them not only money but the downtime caused by equipment failure. 

Digital Twins

Although it sounds like some obscure newfangled technical jargon, a digital twin is just a digital model of a real-world object or space. Their most frequent application in manufacturing is in prototyping and product design. Manufacturers can use digital twins in this capacity to examine individual components of a new product and manipulate it in a digital space. Touch screens, like those found on Industrial Panel PCs and tablets, are particularly well suited to this task.

However, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of digital twin technology. You aren’t just limited to modeling prototypes of new products in a digital space. In fact, it’s possible to model an entire factory floor, machines and all, as a digital twin. SMMs can use this digital twin to examine their manufacturing process from both a birds-eye view and granular detail, finding and fixing inefficiencies they would have otherwise not noticed. Combined with data from IIoT devices, digital twins help with predictive maintenance, giving SMMs a real-time view of the status of each of their machines right from a rugged Industrial Tablet.

With mixed reality, the potential of digital twins is even more significant. Using an MR headset, SMM factory workers can manipulate their prototype product in real-world space and see how it interacts with other products. The MR headset can also overlay the digital twin of a factory floor over the actual real-world factory floor, giving factory workers who wear them an almost X-ray view of the factory and its machines.

RFID Asset Tracking

We’ve discussed the benefits of RFID on this blog before, but it bears repeating that RFID technology is a game-changer for inventory management. As opposed to Barcodes and QR codes, which rely on an optical reader to read printed tags one at a time, RFID tags instead utilize electromagnetic fields. This means that, unlike barcodes and QR codes, which must be read one at a time, it is possible to scan multiple RFID tags at once, so long as they are within the range of your RFID reader.

Not only are passive RFID tags affordable and unobtrusive, but they also have a range of 5-6 meters. This means that a factory worker with an RFID-enabled Rugged Industrial Tablet can scan every RFID-labeled product or box within a nearly twenty-foot radius of them with the push of a button. Put simply, using RFID for inventory management is orders of magnitude more efficient than manually scanning individual barcodes on a regular basis. This allows SMMs to keep on top of their inventory and manage logistics more cheaply, more efficiently, and with much greater detail than they would otherwise.

Final Thoughts

Although many SMMs are hesitant to jump into the digital world, the truth is that upgrading your facility is easier than you realize. The potential upside far outweighs the short-term inconvenience and cost. If you’re an SMM looking to stay competitive in the future, contact the experts at Cybernet today to see how digital technology can help you.