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Smart technologies spur post-COVID recovery for manufacturers

Dean Petrone Profile picture for user Dean Petrone April 7, 2021
Dean Petrone, SVP & General Manager, Industry 4.0 at Infor, explains how IoT connectivity and data-driven insights can help manufacturers anticipate, automate and innovate post-COVID-19.

Image of a robotic manufacturing arm fixing the world
(Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay )

As manufacturers transition into the post-pandemic New Normal, many are turning to smart technologies to help them up-level capabilities, recover lost ground, and remain competitive in a world that accelerated technology adoption out of necessity. As manufacturers made leaps in innovation and collaboration to meet emergency demands, they raised the bar for standard practices. Now, the use of smart sensors, condition-based monitoring, and Internet of Things (IoT) are no longer "nice to have" abilities but are cost-to-play fundamentals. 

The back-story 

Forward-thinking manufacturers have dabbled with the Internet of Things (IoT), smart technologies, and machine-to-machine automation for a decade. Autonomous vehicles in the warehouse, robotics for heavy lifting and precision movements, and complex assets that self-diagnose and trigger maintenance are operational tactics that have seen steady growth - on a moderate scale. 

Use-cases frequently have been proof-of-concept projects or initiatives with a limited scope. Manufacturers with modest budgets tended to choose one or two departments for modernization, mapping a multi-year approach to upgrading equipment and embracing smart use-cases. Urgency was sometimes lacking. 

That's all changed 

"When the pandemic impacted businesses a year ago, most brands and enterprises scrambled to accelerate digital transformation efforts," writes R Ray Wang of Constellation Research in a recent blog. He goes on to explain that digital efforts ranged from rekindling digital channel projects to accelerating subscription business models. Also, many scrambled to shift channel revenue from physical to digital and accommodate new mandates for sanitizing workplaces, distancing shop floor workers, and enabling remote work environments. "These accomplishments accelerated five years of digital transformation in less than one year's time," he says.

Deloitte reports similar findings. In a recent poll of CEOs, 85% of leaders expect investments in smart factories will rise by June 2021. Although some (38%) have paused their smart factory investments as they assess economic conditions, a majority expect to resume their smart manufacturing investments in the next 12 months. In fact, 62% of manufacturers surveyed are committed to forging ahead with initiatives or even accelerating them. On average they expect to spend 36% of their factory investments toward smart manufacturing investments, an impressive 20% increase over findings in last year's study. The Deloitte report says:

For these leaders, now is not the time to retrench and shore up resources. Rather, it's the time to make deliberate, targeted investments in smart manufacturing initiatives to enable their organizations to thrive in the next normal.

What drives the current call for acceleration? 

The uncertainty of today's fast-changing landscape necessitates greater ability to predict and react to shifts in demand, supply chain interruptions, and changing market conditions. Deloitte says: 

To remain competitive, today's manufacturers must produce more relevant, better products at a faster pace. The stakes are high to evolve production processes using advanced technologies and technology-savvy talent. Given the complexity, most manufacturers do not have these areas all figured out, and yet their future success depends on it.

How will smart technologies help manufacturers rebound?

Use-cases for smart manufacturing cover a wide range of operational processes, as well as strategic applications. Some include:

  • Advanced plant maintenance leverages condition-based sensors embedded in plant assets to monitor for early warning signs that the equipment requires service. Trigger points can signal automatic reactions, such as scheduling calibration or part replacement, rerouting work, or, in the case of an emergency, shutting down a line.  
  • Autonomous vehicles are being used to move raw materials to the shop floor as needed or move finished goods to the warehouse and shipping. The vehicles, using machine learning, follow carefully defined routes and safety requirements, while moving goods to their destination. 
  • Quality control checkpoints can be added to multiple points in the production line, helping to spot noncompliance early, minimizing waste of raw resources and time. Sensors that can detect alignment, color, weight, and many more features can detect unacceptable variables in anything from apples for fruit juice, to chrome coatings for bike handlebars. 
  • Machine-to-machine connectivity helps create a real-time view of production lines and steps such as finishing, packaging, and shipping. Smart machines can communicate data about the production status, helping to streamline the flow of goods, identify gaps in efficiency, and manage scheduling of resources for just-in-time delivery. 
  • Supply chain visibility is made possible through the use of smart sensors on packaging, shipping vehicles, and inventorystorage systems so manufacturers have a real-time, accurate view of resources before they arrive at the plant and as they are consumed. Accuracy enables agile adjustments to accommodate unpredicted shifts. 

At the front of the pack

Miller Industries, Inc., a world leader in towing and recovery equipment, is rolling out a comprehensive, cloud-based solution set from Infor leveraging smart technologies, such as Infor OS (Operating Service), the Infor Data Lake, the Infor Coleman AI (artificial intelligence) Platform, and Infor Birst analytics. This will enable the company to combine internal and external data sets and more precisely analyze and forecast workforce and business performance.

Currently, Miller Industries leverages advanced analytics to help business users see a real-time view of operations for better and faster decision making. Miller Industries is also migrating to a full multi-tenant cloud environment and has begun to replace hundreds of spreadsheets with a handful of automated Infor Birst dashboards, reducing the time needed to produce business reports by as much as 80 percent. William G. Miller II, president and co-CEO of Miller Industries, says:

With Infor Birst, we can access and analyze a vast history of information for answers we need for any business question in an instant, through any device. Prior to this, it was difficult to make business decisions as quickly because we had to data mine the information. Once we got the information, employees would have to download and analyze reports. Investing in Infor Birst gives us the most flexible and reliable solution for every business problem we have.

Plus, Miller Industries plans to consolidate its data strategy by bringing its internal and external data into the Infor Data Lake. The company will utilize the Infor Coleman AI Platform to mine this data and leverage Coleman's powerful machine learning to anticipate future demand in its chassis program. Infor Coleman findings then can be shown in Infor Birst's automated dashboards, providing the company with a real-time picture of its current and anticipated demand.

Pushing boundaries

As we announced late last year, we are a founding sponsor of The Smart Factory @ Wichita, a new immersive experience center launched by Deloitte and Wichita State University in Kansas. On Wichita State's Innovation Campus, the state-of-the-art facility includes a fully operational production line and experiential labs for developing and exploring Smart Factory capabilities. As a founding sponsor, Infor and its parent company, Koch Industries, will provide Industry 4.0 expertise and cutting-edge technology that will be featured in the new facility. It's anticipated to open later this year.

The collaboration between Infor, Deloitte, Wichita State, and the Smart Factory partner ecosystem will help enterprisescontinuously innovate and strive to build next-generationapplications - with very practical benefits.


The timing behind the launch of The Smart Factory @ Wichita is ideal. Just as manufacturers are coming to terms with the pandemic fall-out and understanding the need to modernize, they can find resources to help them plan a sound go-forward strategy. Manufacturers can learn from early adopters of smart solutions, plus support any new products, revised operations, or business models that emerged over the past year. For those just starting to plan their next generation solutions, it's still possible to catch up with the early adopters and reap full benefits of smart technologies. Most importantly, the added visibility and intelligence will improve agility. 

A smart factory will be better prepared to weather any future global disruptions, no matter what the future may hold.

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