Brilliant Factories Are Making Manufacturing Pretty Brilliant

Brilliant Factories Are Making Manufacturing Pretty Brilliant

By Barbara Fletcher


Because a savvier, smarter plant is a more profitable one.

By Barbara Fletcher

OZY and Predix from GE — the cloud-based development platform built for industry — have partnered to bring you an inside look at the future of digital industries, where people, data and productivity meet.

In Pune, India, a factory that spreads over 67 acres — the equivalent of 38 football fields — churns out big machines like jet engines, wind turbines and locomotive turbochargers, all under one roof. Inside, some 1,500 employees bustle around, using 3D printers and laser-inspection technology and building water-treatment units for oil and gas and agriculture industries. Yet despite the heightened productivity, there’s a quiet calm. Inside this GE mega-factory, equipment and computers are silently talking to each other, making real-time decisions to improve productivity and prevent downtime. 

Welcome to the era of “brilliant” manufacturing, where the Industrial Internet is taking center stage on the factory floor. Production lines are digitally connected to supply, service and distribution networks to maintain peak production. In these dynamic factories, which are sprouting up in countries such as India, the U.S. and Canada, all assets — from machine parts and robotics to 3D printing, augmented reality and even the people — are connected, says Kimberly Knickle, research vice president for International Data Corporation (IDC), a global market intelligence firm. It’s part of a broader shift that’s occurring in global manufacturing these days, where companies are relying on big data to streamline operations and improve efficiency.

As a result, software, powered by Predix, is helping to swiftly adapt to swings in demand, predict production bottlenecks and machine glitches and react quickly to these anticipated obstacles to reduce unplanned downtime. Today, about 23 percent of manufacturing plants globally are operating as smart factories, according to IDC’s recent Manufacturing Insights Information Technology and Operational Technology Integration Survey. But industry experts anticipate a drastic shift on the horizon. Forty percent of manufacturers have already completed work to integrate information technology and operational technology, and 52 percent of manufacturers have an ongoing initiative to do so. Within five years, Knickle predicts, more than half of manufacturers will have truly integrated their infrastructure in order to function as a smart factory.

Something that is pretty brilliant about a brilliant factory: It has a remarkable ability to “make itself better” over time, Christine Furstoss, global technology director at GE Global Research, has previously said. The machine parts, outfitted with sensors, pump out continual streams of data; this information is analyzed and used to improve the factory and make production lines more efficient. For example, in a GE factory in Schenectady, New York, thousands of tiny sensors gather data about each step in the manufacturing of a battery. The sensors monitor the humidity inside the factory, as well as how much pressure is applied to a specific battery component or whether there are any discrepancies in the size or thickness of a particular component. By closely monitoring the battery-manufacturing process, the factory can draw conclusions based on what conditions and materials lead to the best overall final products, saving time and money.

Sensors and advanced software can reveal what people are working on, the quality of their work and if they are following safety protocols.

The concept also opens a bright door to the future. Achieving an unprecedented level of transparency into the manufacturing process could revolutionize the way humans do their jobs. Sensors and advanced software can reveal what people are working on, the quality of their work, their location and if they are following safety protocols, Knickle explains. One solution called Work in Process (WIP) Manager, which is powered by Predix, provides plantwide collaborative visibility of all work in progress for heavy industrial and complex discrete manufacturers. This allows operators to visualize order queues at their stations and supervisors to monitor and track working capital cost locations. 

Almost any manufacturing plant has the potential to become “brilliant,” but there are obstacles. For one, factories need to be retrofitted with sensors and connected to a network — which comes with its own set of challenges. Sometimes, installing a network into a plant can be expensive or difficult to implement. A facility’s concrete and metal infrastructure can cause connectivity disruptions — think trying to use a cell phone in a concrete parking garage — until extra measures are put in place, Knickle says. Internet security is another concern; a secure infrastructure is necessary to keep jitters at bay.

Sure, there’s a time and financial investment required for retrofitting. But there are benefits in productivity and efficiency to reap. For example, at the GE Global Research Center (GRC) in Niskayuna, New York, 3D glasses allow engineers to gauge how closely a digitally rendered production of a design matches its original specification, and a robot inspects an aircraft blade for imperfections, catching any potential issues that could lead to unplanned downtime in the future. And over in another brilliant factory in Greenville, South Carolina, manufacturers are tapping into higher-tech manufacturing processes as a way to test out new methods that could improve productivity, such as swapping nickel alloys with ceramic components in gas turbines and factoring in how this impacts performance and cost. 

Production management is the “next frontier in science,” Vic Abate, GE chief technology officer and head of GE Global Research, has previously said. It could be similar to “what Galileo did for astronomy or Sir Isaac Newton for physics,” he has added.

Predix from GE is enabling the adoption of powerful, secure and scalable solutions built for the industrial app economy. It’s industrial-strength strength, powering the future of industry. Get Connected.