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A table of experts conversation: Minnesota companies talk smart manufacturing technologies

Dec 28, 2023

Manufacturing is a precise business. So, it’s no wonder that Minnesota’s manufacturing companies have embraced data and digital tools in their operations.

During an event with the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, some of the state’s leading manufacturers explained how they’re using smart manufacturing technologies. CFOs and supply chain executives talked about tools, benefits, partnerships and an AI-driven future.

These are the highlights from their table of experts conversation: 

How Minnesota companies use smart manufacturing technology

Executives shared three use cases for smart manufacturing tools related to product traceability, demand forecasting and scaling:

  • Traceability: Some supply chain leaders have medical-grade traceability of their products. They know the exact materials, machine, operator and production date for every product — and they can monitor every second of production. Soon, machines will be able to halt production automatically if any manufacturing conditions stray from their requirements. Engineers and quality teams also use data to analyze products and predict performance and maintenance issues, as well as warranty needs for products with long-term or lifetime coverage.
  • Demand forecasting: During the COVID-19 pandemic, one manufacturer saw a huge increase in demand for a new set of products. The data helped it make predictive demand decisions and avoid downtime. About 80% of downtime was eliminated by launching a new product at the right time.
  • Scaling: One company needed to shift from clinical-stage manufacturing to high-throughput, high-volume commercial manufacturing — without losing consistency or precision. It used smart manufacturing technologies to help it ramp up for commercialization.

How manufacturing companies use and view data

“Data that doesn’t drive a decision doesn’t help,” one executive said.

Most companies are using a variety of tracking tools inside and out of their supply networks, then pulling it together into one view they can use. For data to support decisions and make an impact, leaders said:

  • Applications need to operate in real time, especially if they support 24/7 operations.
  • It takes a team. Manufacturers need people who are skilled in data and analytics to uncover efficiency gains and other value from data visualizations.
  • Integration is paramount. The goal is to integrate all the way from demand planning to purchasing to production planning, then to manufacturing and distribution, they said. To shift from reactive to predictive modeling, they need to connect financial reporting and manufacturing data.
  • Information needs to be accessible. They want data to come to their people, instead of sending their people to hunt for it. They don’t want to waste engineering hours searching for or manipulating data.
  • Data needs to become part of the culture. AI technologies change the way people work, so people need to be invited into data-driven conversations. Technology could also make manufacturing work more attractive. For example, integration and traceability connect employees to their end customers — and how their work matters.

How smart technologies impact partnerships and supplier relationships 

Executives said they’re more digitally integrated with supply partners to help ensure everything is made to spec and meets certification requirements. In fact, it’s now common for supply contracts to require real-time access to a supplier’s data.

“It’s a good move to enable transparency,” one leader said. “It’s like moving from a handshake to a hug. When you’re showing what you have in-house, you can have better collaboration.”

Among other metrics, manufacturers are asking for real-time insight into manufacturing status so they can avoid downtime. They also look at their suppliers’ quality metrics.

The information isn’t only flowing one way. Manufacturers said they’re also giving their suppliers more real-time information and access. They want suppliers to be prepared for demand changes, so there’s no delay in fulfilling customer orders.

“We want to get to the point where a supplier is meeting our needs with systems integration,” one executive said. “That means the system enables the supplier to make the best decisions for us, and there’s no need to send an email asking what to do.”

How AI will change manufacturing

As AI develops, manufacturers think it will expand some of their digital groundwork. They have the highest hopes for predictive capabilities, automation and tools to decrease downtime.

How Wipfli can help

Manufacturers can’t afford to overlook technologies that can reduce costs and pave the way for new products and added revenue. Wipfli can help manufacturers unlock their full potential with technology. We can guide you toward the right strategy and incorporate the innovation you need to stay efficient and competitive. Contact us today to discover how we can help your business evolve.

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Kate E. Brown
Senior Manager, Technology
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Ryan Swiderski
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