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Smart manufacturing: Is your head in the cloud?

When we talk about smart manufacturing, we’re really talking about data. Agility, resilience, adaptability, speed – these are all outcomes of smarter manufacturing but what is actually driving all those improvements? It’s information. It’s data.


In the past few years, modern businesses have faced disruption, increased competition, and unprecedented changes to consumer demands and expectations. But instead of being daunted, the best businesses are now using information to help them grow and thrive. Gathering and analysing customer data helps businesses spot trends and risks and manage them on the fly. Digitally connecting all manufacturing machines and operations into a single AI-powered system, provides real-time access to global data from all departments – from R&D to assembly lines. And the ability to analyse and gain meaningful insights from all that cloud-based data helps modern manufacturers take on the competition – and even see around a corner or two.

What is smart manufacturing?

The NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) defines smart manufacturing as: “fully-integrated, collaborative manufacturing systems that respond in real time to meet changing demands and conditions in the factory, in the supply network, and in customer needs”.


Smart manufacturing is grounded in cloud connectivity. It is a combination of human creativity, digitally connected machines and assets, and AI-powered systems and analytics. The integration of AI and smart tools helps fuel adaptability and speeds up the capacity to customise outputs based upon real-time data and intel. The visibility, agility, and resilience of smart manufacturing makes it a cornerstone of more efficient supply chain models and overall business operations.

Learn about some of the benefits of smart manufacturing.

Industry 4.0 manufacturing

Industry 4.0 refers to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The word “Revolution” is used because each Industrial Revolution has been powered by some kind of game-changing technology or invention that “revolutionised” the entire industrial world. The First Industrial Revolution used steam; the Second, the assembly line; the Third was driven by computing power; and the Fourth is powered by digital technologies and connectivity.


The best manufacturers often have millions of dollars and hours invested into machinery and assets that are highly specialised and expertly engineered for their unique product output. The beauty of smart manufacturing is that it’s not about tearing down traditional factories and replacing them with something else. It’s about smartening up existing factories step by step and augmenting them with Industry 4.0 manufacturing tools and solutions to reach their manufacturing goals more efficiently and effectively. 

Automated manufacturing vs. autonomous manufacturing

Automated manufacturing is nothing new. It simply refers to robotic devices that are programmed with the sole purpose of performing a specific action. Most often, these repetitive tasks occur in concert with other machines and humans in an environment such as an assembly line. Automation is essential in delivering the speed and accuracy needed for high-volume manufacturing.


Autonomous manufacturing is basically just automated manufacturing…with a brain. Using Industry 4.0 technologies like AI and machine learning, a smart manufacturing system and the IoT devices within it, capture disparate data sets like consumer feedback, supply and demand, machine capacity, and any other relevant information. Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms can then be applied to those data sets to deliver – and automatically enact – more efficient and optimised workflows and processes.

Smart manufacturing technologies

Making your manufacturing operations “smart” is a function of Industry 4.0 transformation. Critical considerations such as cybersecurity and strategic business integration are all part of the Industry 4.0 landscape. But below, we will just look at the most foundational technologies that underpin smart manufacturing practices.

  • IoT/IIoT: When devices and machines are equipped to send and receive digital data, they comprise an IoT network. Data sent from the device reports on its status and activity, and data sent to the device controls and automates its actions and workflows. An Industrial IoT (IIoT) network is at the core of smart manufacturing as it not only comprises the connected assets, but the smart systems and automated processes with which they are integrated.
  • AI/Machine Learning: The most comprehensive data in the world is meaningless until you can leverage it and use it to tell a story. AI brings manufacturing data to life with advanced analytics and the inherent ability to manage and amalgamate broad and disparate data sets. Manufacturers armed with all that data can then use machine learning algorithms to get their systems to tell them what they need to know – about what’s going on right now, and what is predicted to happen in the future.
  • Big Data: If AI and machine learning put the “smart” in smart manufacturing, then Big Data is the fuel. Big Data is not so-called simply because it’s voluminous. It’s defined by its variety and complexity. By feeding an AI system with enormous sets of complex and disparate manufacturing data, you give it the scope it needs to draw increasingly accurate conclusions and learn more quickly over time.
  • Autonomous robots: As already discussed, robotics is nothing new in manufacturing. It is not the ability to externally automate assets that is the game-changer – it’s the ability for those cloud-connected assets to use smart technologies to automate themselves. Smart factories depend upon autonomous automation for the agility and speed that they need.
  • Additive Manufacturing/Hybrid Manufacturing: Better known as 3D printing, additive manufacturing boosts resilience and agility. For example, a Boeing 747 jet is made up of over six million parts – all which require replacement on different schedules. Instead of trying to warehouse all those parts, smart metal or plastic 3D printers can access the maintenance logs and produce the parts as needed, allowing the company to hold a “virtual inventory”.
  • Cloud Computing: Cloud connectivity and computing give manufacturers on-demand availability of system resources such as IIoT data, analytics, and process automations, all across wireless channels like Wi-Fi or 5G. Large clouds may be centrally managed yet distributed over regional or global locations.
  • 5G Connectivity: With 5G, businesses take the advantages and benefits of internet cloud connectivity and ramp them up with less latency, much faster speeds, and almost limitless capacity to scale.
  • Edge Computing: Today’s smart factories are all about pivoting fast and responding quickly in real time. It takes time to send data gathered in one place, to systems housed in another physical location – and for smart factories, that downtime represents loss. Edge computing helps to bring the brains (AI and data analytics) to the shop floor and eliminate lags in the IoT network.  
  • Simulation/Digital Twin: A digital twin or simulation is created to be an identical virtual copy of a machine or process that exists in the real world. It allows manufacturing teams to test new ways of doing things, and to push virtual prototypes to their absolute limits, without the cost and risk of damaging anything in real life.
  • Design for Manufacturing: This is not so much a technology itself as it is a cross-functional practice that exists because of technology. Design for manufacturing principles allow R&D professionals to learn from data – from across the factory floor and customer base. These insights then help them design win/win products that meet customer demands for quality and personalisation, and create designs are also easier, leaner, and faster to manufacture and customise.

Manufacturing 4.0 and competitive advantage

When it comes to competition, it’s not always one single advantage that leads to the win. It’s usually an amalgamation of practices, quality, processes, and brand perception that give one company the edge over another. The benefits of smart manufacturing add up across the business:

  • Product lifecycles are getting shorter by the day. If your customers see something on social media yesterday, they want it in their shopping cart today. And the same applies to B2B customers who are also expecting faster turnarounds and product upgrades. When manufacturing systems are agile, they can pivot and deliver new models more quickly.
  • Being seen as a sustainable brand is more important than ever. Modern consumers – especially younger shoppers – are willing to pay up to 10% more for sustainable brands. The data gathered by smart manufacturing technologies can help enact strategic and cost-effective plans to streamline operations and lower energy usage.
  • Supply chain disruptions are inevitable. But when your manufacturing processes use smart analytics, you’ll have the chance to get a heads-up and be ready with contingency scenarios.
  • It’s getting hard to find good people. Many companies struggle to attract the staff they need. Smart manufacturing practices can help you improve your safety record and offer employees some variety and engagement beyond the repetitive drudgery of traditional assembly line tasks.

Smart manufacturing implementation: Next steps

Some businesses have already traveled quite far down the path of digital transformation, integrating a wide range of Industry 4.0 technologies into their operations. Others are just getting started with their journey or wondering where they should start.


The good news is that smart manufacturing solutions don’t all have to come on board at once. The most successful industrial transformations start with good communication and the breaking down of silos. By communicating with your staff early on, you can learn where your operational strengths and weaknesses are right now. You can also get important insights as to the whereabouts of low-hanging fruit and where your best starting points might be.


And before your journey begins, be sure to put together solid communication and change management strategies to make sure that your most important manufacturing asset – your team – is enthusiastic and informed about the improvements to come.


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