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Perfect production

If latest figures are to be believed, 2014 is the year manufacturers are getting serious about perfect production. According to a recent survey of more than 1,000 European IT professionals (IT Priorities 2014: UK, Europe, France and Germany), this year is set to witness a significant increase in implementation or upgrading of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems say 59 per cent, compared with 43 per cent in 2013.

This is echoed by a Morgan Stanley survey of 150 chief information officers in the United States and Europe who say they will spend 4.5 per cent more on IT with budgets focused on cloud computing, ERP and analytics software.

But while selecting the right ERP application is key to super-charging the factory floor, it is by no means the panacea. If machines breakdown mid-production and cannot be fixed quickly, production stalls and profitability starts to leak.

A revolutionary new discipline, 3D printing, has been heralded as the solution to this problem. Through building up layers of materials to build solid objects, on demand, at relatively low cost, 3D printing can replace parts quickly. So instead of being in the hands of suppliers’ lead times for components, it can immediately create and swap out a broken part, minimising downtime and ensuring production schedules are adhered to.

If machines break down mid-production and cannot be fixed quickly, production stalls and profitability starts to leak

In fact, earlier this year, BAE Systems announced that RAF Tornado fighter jets have flown with parts made using 3D printing technology in a move that is hoped to cut the RAF’s maintenance and service bill by more than £1.2 million in the next four years. And if further proof of the credibility of this seemingly sci-fi shift was needed, US space agency NASA plans to send a 3D printer into space this year so astronauts can produce parts and tools.

But the truth is, without the connectivity and intelligence of supporting systems and smart sensors, 3D printing simply cannot deliver on the hype which surrounds it.


Smart sensors have become commonly used to provide data in a range of areas, from tracking pollution levels, and health and wellbeing, to planning a house purchase or mapping out a route for a morning jog. On production lines, smart sensors are embedded within machinery and act as radars which track data on temperature, utilisation rates, line speeds and power ratings. Through monitoring equipment continuously, these smart sensors send alerts to engineers or production managers, in the same way we send tweets, to flag anomalies before they become problems, preventing downtime and minimising disruption to production.

Of course, the data from the sensors requires a means of analysing and applying it. This is where the third piece of the jigsaw, modern, proactive enterprise asset management (EAM) software, comes into play. These systems capture the data, build intelligence around it, in some cases using computer-aided design diagrams of the highlighted part, and act on it through forwarding alerts to the right people, building real-time responsiveness into business processes.

This contextualised information can be visualised immediately in a modern social media-esque interface on a tablet so that production managers can get a live, detailed overview of the production line, from bill of materials and schedules to servicing intervals and malfunctioning of a machine part.

With the sensors and systems having predicted equipment failure, identified the failing part, analysed the cost for repairing or replacing parts, allocated resources and scheduled the action, 3D printing then completes the process through enabling engineers to instantaneously print a part, such as a filter or motor, in order to respond to these alerts.

This combination of intelligent ERP, proactive EAM with smart sensors and some space-age wizardry in the form of 3D printing represent the right ingredients for manufacturing success. Blended together using modern middleware (such as Infor ION) and presented via a centralised platform, where information is contextualised and organised (such as Infor Ming.le), perfect production can become a genuine reality for manufacturers in 2014.