Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Virtual Smart Advisors Kickstart Smart Manufacturing

By Mikes James, Immediate-Past Chairman, MESA International Board of Directors

Wondering where to start on your smart manufacturing and Industry 4.0 journey? Virtual smart advisors are the perfect starting point.

I first read about ‘smart advisors’ in a report published by industry analyst Gartner. The idea aligns well with our own thoughts that decision making will shift away from people to virtual assistants. Already prevalent in the banking and services industry, virtual assistants advise us on a wide variety of choices such as what loan to take out or which local restaurant to choose. 


When we think about smart advisors in manufacturing we can imagine them recommending maintenance work, changes in process parameters or schedule changes. With a smart advisor we do not fully trust the virtual assistant to make a decision. We believe that it’s not yet intelligent enough to fully replicate human decision making. Why is this? 
Actually our mistrust is well founded. Anyone who has worked in a plant knows that the theory and practice of data collection are not the same. If we want to automate decision making then we must be sure that data is accurate. Any of the thousands of sensors could be giving us inaccurate data, a communication channel might fail or communication might be delayed. There are a myriad of opportunities for failure. 

Even so, with smart manufacturing we should be able to overcome these problems. Systems are becoming increasingly intelligent, especially when programmers take account of potential points of failure. Smart manufacturing needs smart programmers, the so called super engineers who truly understand virtual and physical manufacturing. In Industry 4.0, people provide the intelligence to autonomous systems, those people have to be really smart. The smart advisor is programmed by a super engineer, it will be iterative and be constantly improved with experience and knowledge. 

I think smart advisors are a perfect starting point for the journey into smart manufacturing and Industry 4.0. Eventually we expect to see the plant fully autonomous and self-organising. Smart advisors can be programmed for specific tasks, once we are confident they can make good decisions all or most of the time then we could approve them for autonomous operations. Many autonomous agents, working together, will become the building bricks of autonomous manufacturing.

About the Author 

Mike James FCMA, GCMA, MBA

Chair of Board of Directors at ATS Global B.V., a world-wide independent solution provider for smart digital transformation. Executive Board member at MESA International, a global, expert non-profit organization for manufacturers.

The Internet of Things, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Smart Manufacturing and the creation of new manufacturing strategies is his current passion. Strong background in senior consultancy for implementation of automation and MES/MOM systems at global and local manufacturers underpins Mike’s role in defining pragmatic strategies.

Mike completed his financial and business education at Southampton and Bournemouth Universities in the UK. His career in manufacturing started at Plessey Electronics followed by Poole Pottery, Allen-Bradley CNC in the UK and Allen-Bradley Europa B.V. in The Netherlands.

At Indivers N.V. Mike was responsible for the establishment of aerospace manufacturing units in The Netherlands and the expansion of semi-conductor manufacturing facilities. Mike is co-founder of ATS in 1986 which is now a global company.

As Chairman of MESA’s Global Education Program from 2009 to 2012 and Chairman of MESA EMEA from 2010-2013 Mike moved to become President of MOMi, the Manufacturing Operations Management Institute to continue developing MOM education with MESA for the benefit of the manufacturing industry. In August 2016 Mike was appointed Chair of MESA International and is now an Executive Committee member.

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