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Forming a Smart Manufacturing Ecosystem

Manufacturers today recognize industry disruptions can have long-lasting effects — which has driven the adoption of smart manufacturing ecosystems. A smart manufacturing ecosystem is a coalition of manufacturing professionals and organizations working together to utilize smart technologies to address industry challenges.

Some of the biggest challenges faced by the manufacturing industry are a result of the turmoil caused by COVID-19. They include massive supply chain delays and an exacerbated labor shortage. Though the whole industry is still dealing with these issues, manufacturers who were already in the process of building a smart manufacturing ecosystem were better equipped to deal with the pandemic. They not only responded faster to the COVID-19 crisis, but also more effectively.

The Start of an Ecosystem

Innovators within the manufacturing industry know that improved vendor and supplier relations and communications are key to supply chain visibility. Manufacturing ecosystems take it a step further. They’re not just vendors and suppliers. These ecosystems are also made up of other companies, associations, and organizations.

This includes companies in the manufacturing, engineering, and product design sectors. Sometimes these coalitions can include competitors, or they might bring together a variety of manufacturing industries. One example of this was at the beginning of the pandemic, when a diverse group of manufacturing industries — most notably automotive — worked with medical device manufacturers to ramp up production of necessary medical equipment to combat the shortage caused by the pandemic. Within this manufacturing ecosystem, collaborators shared specifications and designs to meet a common goal.

Nonprofits and manufacturing institutes working to advance the industry are also integral to a smart manufacturing ecosystem. These organizations foster innovation and connection among the manufacturing community. They sponsor new project ideas, share cutting-edge research and discoveries, and put on conferences and events that encourage collaboration within the industry.

A smart manufacturing ecosystem must draw from all of these parts — suppliers, vendors, institutes, nonprofits, consortiums, and other industrial companies — to advance the industry. The focus on digital and smart technologies takes it from a traditional manufacturing ecosystem to a smart one.

For these ecosystems to be productive, participating companies have to be willing to share business objectives and plans intended to further the industry or address prominent issues. As with any new initiative, results must be measured and tracked. And there needs to be a way to conveniently share the information throughout the ecosystem. These efforts are necessary for an ecosystem to succeed, helping manufacturers within it to stay competitive and prepared for the future.

Smart Manufacturing Ecosystem and Digital Transformation

Ecosystems are a more recent pursuit of the manufacturing industry but are quickly becoming essential. According to a 2020 Deloitte study, 85% of global manufacturers think ecosystems are important to competitiveness. Additionally, 88% of manufacturers see the value in forming external partnerships, and in working with vendors and other organizations to reach their smart manufacturing and digital transformation goals.

Smart manufacturing ecosystems go hand in hand with digital transformation. Any company driving the formation of an ecosystem needs digital tools and capabilities in place. Digital tools enable manufacturers to interact in new ways, and to share meaningful data collected through smart machine and tool sensors.

Sharing and comparing data is a basis for these relationships, but once an ecosystem is formed participants often advance their digital transformation strategies. Businesses in a smart manufacturing ecosystem are usually able to implement smart manufacturing and digital technologies faster and more effectively. This allows them to see the benefits of such initiatives sooner, leading to increased profits and improved ROI.

Ecosystem Drawbacks to Consider

Any new initiative comes with challenges. With smart manufacturing ecosystems, the challenges are often either with management or information sharing. Information sharing between organizations always carries the risks of cybersecurity threats and potential intellectual property theft.

Ensuring your company has a comprehensive data protection plan in place can help to mitigate some of these concerns. Also, working with your legal department to draft agreements for partnerships helps protect your company in cases of intellectual property theft.

The other challenge — management of an ecosystem — requires accountability from all partners. Every organization in a smart manufacturing ecosystem has to be invested in collaborating to advance the industry and solve universal issues. Partnerships are often unsuccessful when they lack proper management to ensure participation and don’t take actionable steps to meet goals. Representatives from each organization should be designated to maintain involvement and engagement within the partnership.

SME is a nonprofit organization that works to advance the manufacturing industry. We bring manufacturers together to connect the industry, strengthen the workforce, and promote advanced manufacturing technologies. Our event, Smart Manufacturing Experience, fosters collaboration between some of the most innovative companies and organizations within the manufacturing industry. Attend this event to make partnerships and begin the journey to forming your company’s smart manufacturing ecosystem.