Smart factory acceleration in a pandemic

Cover Story: Learn how building for the pandemic era can accelerate the era of smart factories. See four ways a factory can become smart and resilient.

By Ken Engel April 6, 2021


Learning Objectives

  • Deploy and enable agile remote operators. 
  • Optimize performance through real-time asset, process information.
  • IIoT helps with save power, improve analytics and operations. 

Many corporations are in a bind because of the global pandemic: They must guard their workers’ health and safety while competing in a radically altered economic landscape and automation intelligently applied in a “smart factory” can help. The drive to compete while simultaneously keeping employees safe has accelerated the adoption of specialized applications that take advantage of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), cloud, artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies.

Once considered “nice to have,” these technologies are now vital to business continuity and resilience for smart manufacturing. Benefits of implementation include 3.5% year-over-year (YOY) energy savings, $6.6 million in regional savings since 2012, a 20% reduction in mean time to repair (MTTR) and a 90% paperwork elimination.

Transformative technologies add manufacturing resiliency

Technologies such as IIoT are transformative in their ability to aid manufacturers as they prepare for, respond to, and predict operational events, even during a global pandemic with related supply chain and workforce disruptions. These technologies also are intrinsic to the most resilient of manufacturing plants: smart factories.

Smart factories help businesses make informed, data-driven decisions for improved profitability, asset management performance, operational efficiency and a more productive workforce while keeping operations secure, agile and environmentally sustainable. Smart factories use digital technology and connectivity to create a flexible system that can learn from new conditions in real or near-real-time. Smart factories can run through the entire production process autonomously. In an era of uncertainty, that means production can continue, even under challenging circumstances.

Because smart factories are efficient and resilient, indicators point to their sustained popularity well beyond the pandemic. For example, Schneider Electric’s 60-year-old Lexington, Ky.-based smart factory was designated a World Economic Forum Lighthouse facility. With the digital transformation of its plants, a manufacturer can see the evolution and benefits of a fully-functioning smart factory and its capabilities after applying new tools to optimize the working environment.

Four ways a factory can become smart, resilient

Here are four best practices and technologies for end users, machine builders and partners that can transform the traditional facility into tomorrow’s smart factory.

1. Deploy and enable agile remote operators

Smart factories break traditional patterns and often bring about changes in operational procedures, such as agile methodology. Agile can make corporations more responsive to their customers and more competitive in the marketplace. However, as reported in a Deloitte article, July 29, 2019, “Stepping stones to an agile enterprise,” adopting agile principles is an ongoing, step-by-step process.

Agile principles break down traditional software development methods and call for an incremental, iterative approach to delivering high-quality software. It requires frequent deliveries to ensure benefits result from the process and places a high value on individuals, collaboration and the ability to respond to change.

While the process is continuous, each iteration in the development cycle improves upon the past. Because agile depends upon employee input and requires trust among managers and employees, agile should have executive buy-in before it is attempted.

One strategy is holding daily on-site meetings. At Schneider Electric, that happens in smart factories and smart distribution centers. Meetings are short interval management (SIM) meetings, which follow agile principles and are intended to engage productivity by analyzing performance data, planning work, and coordinating teams.

Because employees cannot gather on the factory floor during the pandemic, meetings are conducted via digital software applications already deployed at sites pre-pandemic. These applications connect relevant performance information and trigger action workflows to maintain manufacturing performance levels while ensuring social distancing.

2. Optimize performance through real-time asset, process information

There’s no one moment when a factory officially becomes “smart.” The heart of any smart factory is an IoT-enabled architecture and platform that allows organizations to leverage all connected devices and sensors.

An IoT platform can be designed to be easily implemented and scaled to meet individual customer needs. Open IIoT-enabled architectures allows organizations to leverage connected devices and sensors for productivity and savings.

A machine software application on the IoT platform can be used to detect and advise about issues that generate predictive maintenance alerts. In a pandemic, staff can monitor machine performance from home and remedy problems before they cause a failure.

Technologies such as these can lead to better coordination among factories worldwide. For example, our engineering team in Singapore can collaborate with a partner in Europe to remotely deploy predictive maintenance on a production line for a smart factory in the Philippines.

3. Use IIoT Platforms for savings in power consumption, waste

Traditional factories monitor energy usage at intervals and adjust accordingly. Energy management is retrospective. Energy efficiencies aren’t easy to find, except through trial and error and proactive vigilance. In smart factories, innovation and sustainability go hand-in-hand: energy management is in real-time because the data captured is in real-time.

The gathered real-time data is transparent and can be converted into actionable insights, autonomously or by humans. Transparent data access means greater visibility into where energy efficiencies can be achieved throughout the facility, from motors to the HVAC system.

The Schneider Electric Lexington plant achieved 3.5% year-over-year (YOY) energy savings, in addition to $6.6 million in regional savings since 2012. Other benefits include a 20% reduction in the mean-time-to-repair metric and a 90% paperwork elimination.

 4. Use IIoT-powered predictive analytics for process efficiency

Smart factories allow operators to use augmented reality (AR) to speed up operation and maintenance to increase productivity gain.

With AR software, a worker can scan a QR code and see live operational data delivered to a smartphone or tablet. The worker can check for problems and safety issues before they become faults, alarms, or safety issues.

The AR also can give workers a look under the panel for electrical issues and reduce by 20% the time it takes to repair a machine. AR can gather machine performance information, too and make workers proactive instead of reactive when it comes to breakages between maintenance cycles. The AR-driven process also helps train analytic models to make the machines perform better over time.

Transforming manufacturers for remote work

With remote work here to stay, manufacturers must adapt, transform, and arm themselves with a future-ready and resilient factory or facility. While digital infrastructure has been evolving and maturing long before the pandemic, COVID-19 has significantly impacted the tools, technologies and processes these organizations choose to invest in. The time for smart factories has arrived.

Ken Engel is senior vice president global supply chain, North America, Schneider Electric; Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,

KEYWORDS: Industrial Internet of Things, smart manufacturing


Intelligent automation deployed during the pandemic creates operational efficiencies in smart factories.


Author Bio: Ken Engel, Schneider Electric