ISA Interchange

Welcome to the official blog of the International Society of Automation (ISA).

This blog covers numerous topics on industrial automation such as operations & management, continuous & batch processing, connectivity, manufacturing & machine control, and Industry 4.0.

The material and information contained on this website is for general information purposes only. ISA blog posts may be authored by ISA staff and guest authors from the automation community. Views and opinions expressed by a guest author are solely their own, and do not necessarily represent those of ISA. Posts made by guest authors have been subject to peer review.

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What Makes a Factory a Smart Factory?

Everything is Getting Smart(er)

In recent years, “smart” has been used to describe everything from industrial factories to consumer watches and lightbulbs. It is arguably overused; most of the technology we use, even some very common everyday objects, are labeled as “smart.” The meaning behind the term is vague and open to interpretation as to what defines smart, or more importantly, what contributions it has to our everyday lives. Searching for the meaning of smart brings up some parallel thoughts with other terms and ideas, where similar questions arise.

One such topic is Industry 4.0, along with Digitalization and Digital Transformation. These usually come in a bundle when spoken about and sometimes their overuse or misuse causes information fatigue. Even when that is not the case, the actual impact of smart factory technologies is obfuscated from the so-called “PowerPoint implementation” with tangible and measurable results for stakeholders. There are quite a few research projects running now to improve that, but that topic is for another time.

Risks and Dilemmas (and What Plutarch Has To Do With It)

Enabled by the rapid, and almost supersonic, development of information technology and data science since the break of the millennium, industrial facilities running for decades with little or no logical upgrades are now bursting with Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices and data connections. The explosion of smart tech in factories is making the lives of everyone involved in IT, OT, or cybersecurity an expert full of interesting challenges and nerve-wracking difficulties. Everyone with a technical background is thrilled by the new technology and full of imagination on their potential. However, implementation often introduces situations where business ideas clash with cybersecurity requirements. Finding the right compromise is possible, but may reduce the impact of the project or cause it to fail entirely.

I doubt Plutarch had Industry 4.0 in mind when he wrote The Symposiacs in 1st century AD, yet his ideas pertain to some of the issues we are dealing with today (though no chicken or eggs are involved—unless of course it's taking place in a poultry plant!). To successfully make a transition into digital enterprises, one needs data. Yet, there is usually little data to support the decision to invest in this effort and fund the very same transition.

We are in a way faced with the chicken and egg dilemma. We need data to be able to find out what data we need. That’s where factors like risk-taking and leadership come into play. The pioneers are the ones that show the way forward; organizations that foster innovation, pushing their people just a bit further, and allowing failure. In fact, many organizations have such people and spirit, but is this enough?

How Do I Know if a Factory is Smart?

I often hear this question when talking with customers, partners, and even colleagues. When there is no time for the long version, I simply reply that a smart factory is the one that can talk to you, and you can make sense of what it’s trying to tell you. To achieve this, several conditions are needed.

First, the infrastructure. Without it, there is no smart factory. Infrastructure is made up of machines and their components, configured in a way that enables gathering of processing data and variables.

Once data is gathered, it needs to be processed and stored. Most often it is also transferred outside the production zone to business systems, clouds, or another platform of choice for mass data storage and processing. Once data gets where it needs to be, its crunch time—data analytics and data interpretation is the heart of Industry 4.0.

Here is where the final ingredient, and what in my opinion is the most crucial part of making a factory a smart one: It’s people. Operators, engineers, managers, analysts, and finally cybersecurity specialists. All of these professionals are often helped by other experts coming from research institutions, universities, and vertical industries. Together, these teams form a mesh of knowledge and experiences that create new patterns of thinking and new methods of solving problems, all while continuing to give voice to the smart factories of tomorrow.

Matjaz Demsar
Matjaz Demsar
Matjaz Demsar is currently working as an industrial network, cybersecurity and IIoT connectivity consultant for Siemens Customer Services in Slovenia, within wider topics of industrial digitalization and digital transformation. His experiences span over twenty years and in different roles such as IT, as well as OT and business information systems. An ISA member since 2019, Matjaz is an active member of the SM/IIoT division, where his work is mostly about promoting the topics of digitalization and best practices in relation to the ISA/IEC 62443 series of standards.

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