Ten Inevitable Paths from Manufacturing to “Intelligent Manufacturing”

Column:Industry Information Time:2019-03-21 Source: Internet
Ten Inevitable Paths from Manufacturing to “Intelligent Manufacturing”

【Introduction】Many enterprises get lost and do not know how to start in the environment full of such concepts as “Industry 4.0, Intelligent Manufacturing and Internet+”. In fact, no matter intelligent manufacturing or intelligent plant has its own implementation conditions and path, and there is no shortcut to go. As the industries and enterprises are different, the roads will be also different.

    Generally speaking, the following ten directions are the inevitable paths for China’s industry to march from manufacturing to intelligent manufacturing. It’s only that for different industries and different enterprises, the focuses will be different due to the different market demand patterns, different product processes and different management bases, but we can always find several feasible paths towards intelligent manufacturing.


Lean production was first designed to meet personalized demand for multiple varieties and small batches, and its two pillars are “Just-in-time (JIT)” and “Intelligent Automation”.

So far, leanness has evolved into a lean management concept and method for the full value chain involving marketing, R&D, supply chain, production, process and even entrepreneurship. It drives the transformation of the global industries from manufacturing to service. The idea “create value and eliminate waste” that it pursues, relevant methods and tools promote the optimized allocation of the production resources, and rapidly improve quality, efficiency and reaction speed.

Unfortunately, leanness has not been effectively implemented in many enterprises in China. Most of them cannot persist but give up halfway because they are eager for quick success and instant benefit, lack the spirit of introducing good experience and methods, etc. In the electronic industry, the average inventory turnover time of Chinese enterprises is 51 days, and that of American enterprises is 8 days; in the textile and garment industry, the average inventory turnover time of Chinese enterprises is 120 days. That is to say, even if the profit rate is the same, the return on investment will be also low.

Intelligent manufacturing is impossible to base on this inefficient production mode. Leanness is the first step that must be taken and the path which can bring the highest return on investment, because it nearly does not require the enterprises to make extra investment, and they can receive return beyond imagination only by reconfiguring production resources on the existing basis.

The successful implementation of leanness is not difficult, and the key lies in the determination of the leaders and the change of the management’s idea.


Standardization is the basis of automation and the premise of intelligent manufacturing.

Domestic enterprises exclaim over the high degree of automation in the automobile industry. They don’t know why such simple products as home appliances cannot realize the high degree of automation of such complicated products as cars. One important reason lies in standardization.

Common platforms, general parts and other strategies which are generally taken in the automobile industry greatly reduce the product cost. Batch production is realized by changing the method from manufacturing parts according to the whole car into manufacturing the whole car according to the parts, i.e. standardized parts, and thus the cost is successfully reduced.

Domestic enterprises do not pay attention to or do not realize the importance of standardization. For example, simple screws and packaging cartons have dozens of and hundreds of specifications, and therefore the inventory and part costs are high. There is totally no control from the link of R&D and design. Every time when a new product is developed or a worker is replaced, new parts are increased randomly. A standardized process and a product database are lacked.

Of course, standardization also includes standardized operation processes and operation methods. Only with standardization can automation be developed accordingly, e.g. automatic welding, automatic assembly. Assuming that parts are ever-changing and the operation methods are not fixed, automation will be difficult to realize. Even if it is realized, the cost will be very high.

3: Modularization

Automobile and computer were the first industries to realize modularization. From modular design, modular procurement to modular production, modularization is also the key for intelligent manufacturing to realize low cost and meet personalized consumption needs. Once it is realized, a truly personalized product will become possible, e.g. a mobile phone. Everybody’s mobile phone can be unique, and people can combine their favorite mobile phones as if they were assembling building blocks.

Modularization reduces the degree of complexity from design, procurement to production. The standardized interface and connection method increase the universality, reduce the manufacturing cost and cycle, realize automatic production, so that logistics and information communication are realized more easily. For example, in the past, different mobile phone brands have different chargers. The chargers will be abandoned once the corresponding mobile phones are changed, which causes great waste. Now the situation has improved.

Modularization is relatively difficult to implement. It involves industry and enterprise standards, and needs the common participation of upstream and downstream enterprises. It is a long-term job, so it’s particularly important to build lean strategic partnership with each other.


Automation is mostly mentioned in intelligent manufacturing. Many local governments and enterprises vividly call it as “machine-instead-of-human”, make a lot of attempts, succeeding or failing.

Enterprises can integrate the original discrete processing methods for treating raw materials by independent innovation, connect the originally independent procedures via an automatic production line, so as to realize the lean continuous production, eliminate the intermediate loading and unloading, storage and moving, and improve the production speed and production efficiency.

But some of them find the cost is not reduced but greatly increased. Although the number of operators is reduced, the number of equipment maintainers is actually increased, depreciation and energy consumption costs rise significantly due to economic depression, market downturn and insufficient capacity, the investment is difficult to be recovered, these enterprises are difficult to recoup their investment and face the pressure of loss.

Automation and informatization are the biggest part of investment for realizing intelligent manufacturing. Enterprises must be careful before automation transformation, and ask the following questions: Why it needs to upgrade to automation? What’s the return on investment (a reasonable return on investment period shall be less than 5 years)? How reliable are the automation equipment? What are the risks? Can it adapt to the upgrading of products? Make sure to think clearly; otherwise, the cost will not be reduced but increased. After investing in automation, many enterprises find the equipment immature and fails to work frequently, or the used equipment is not easy to use and is not as flexible and convenient as manual operation. As a result, equipment with the of hundreds of thousands of or millions of investment is put aside wastefully, and such ineffective investment will even drag down the enterprises.

With the progress of technology and the increase of manpower cost, automation has become an irreversible trend. For different industries and different enterprises, some of them have mature automation solutions, some do not, and the enterprises need to plan for their own automation direction by considering their own situation. They shall start from the parts which can bring the highest return on investment and be realized most easily. Of course, they shall also consider the aforesaid standardization and modularization, meet the requirements of lean production, optimize the corresponding production process, go step by step, advance orderly, and must not go too fast and blindly follow the pace of other industries and other enterprises.

5: Servitization

Now China has more than 600 Million netizens and 700 Million intelligent terminals, and the booming of mobile internet has accelerated the transformation from manufacturing to service. “Industrial Internet” advocated by USA connects people, data and machines, forming an open and globalized industrial network. Its connotation has gone beyond the manufacturing process and the manufacturing industry itself, crossed the whole value chain of the product lifecycle, and covered more industrial areas, such as aviation, energy, transportation, medical service, etc.

In addition, the manufacturing enterprises can also monitor, analyze and improve the design and manufacturing of equipment through the online data of the equipment, so as to improve the product reliability and efficiency.

Of course, as the industries and products are different, the service contents are also very different. In the Internet + mode, traditional enterprises need to constantly innovate their business mode and find a service mode which is suitable for themselves to impress the clients.

6: Personalization

In the past 30 years, the variety of market goods expanded dramatically by dozens of and hundreds of times. This is an era of personalized consumption, where everybody can have their own blog, Weibo, WeChat, etc., to spread their voices.

Personalization itself is not a new word, and people made personalized goods through DIY workshops as early as more than 100 years ago. The difficulty in implementing personalized is the need to achieve low cost and high quality of mass production.

Consumers directly place orders online or by phone and choose their favorite styles, and enterprises produce and deliver the goods according to the customized orders. Therefore, the inventory will be effectively reduced, and the operating cost will be reduced by more than 50%.

The realization of high-quality and low-cost personalization firstly depends on your lean production level, i.e. “value is driven by the real customer needs” advocated by leanness. The realization of personalization depends next on your standardized and modular design. Rapidly developing Internet and other information technologies provide support for it, so that the realization of personalization becomes easy.

At the current stage, personalization is only limited and conditional, and full personalization cannot be realized. No matter cars, computers, mobile phones, clothing or other goods, personalization is only a choice within a certain range.

Each enterprise shall decide its own personalized mode according to its own leanness level, standardization/modularization level and informatization level. It is not the more personalized the better. Personalization is based on a certain implementation conditions. Perhaps in the future, the development of 3D printing and artificial intelligence could provide a possibility for complete personalization.

7: Ecologicalization

The competition of enterprises gradually changes from the competition of individual enterprises to that of supply chains and even ecosystems. “The wave of alliance of large enterprises, particularly in the information and network industry, is another aspect of the increasingly growing co-evolution of the world economy. It’s better to form an alliance with the opponents to co-exist than to swallow them or compete with them…The future of control is: Partnership, collaborative control, man-machine hybrid control, and human beings share control with our creature.” Kevin Kelly wrote in Out of Control.

8: Globalization

Today in an interconnected world, when your enterprise reaches a certain scale, you need to consider globalization to configure resources, so as to improve the efficiency and reduce the cost. Global resources include market resources, design resources, procurement resources and production resources.

China’s “The Belt and Road” strategy is to look for global market resources, and output our surplus capacity, such as high-speed rail technology, etc. Design resources are to establish R&D technical centers abroad, develop products with local characteristics or make up for the deficiency of the domestic design capacity, form the global 24-hour uninterrupted product development, so as to shorten the R&D cycle. Huawei, Haier, Lenovo and other enterprises have set up R&D institutions abroad.

Procurement and production resources are to seek global material supplying places with better quality and lower cost, not only need to consider the unit price for procurement and manufacturing but also shall consider the increase of the transportation cost, complexity of the supply chain, visualization of the supply chain, longer delivery cycle, more inventory, environmental-friendly carbon emission, quality stability, local labor policies, fluctuation of exchange rate and other problems.

9: Digitization

Digitization is closely related to informationization. Like automation, it is the biggest part of investment in intelligent manufacturing transformation. With the rapid development of information technology, everything can be digitized. From human beings, products to equipment, everything is interconnected.

People can be identified by human face recognition technology. They could be identified only in the static state in the past, but now they can be identified when moving.

The digitization of the whole process of a product from product development design, material procurement to manufacturing and delivery can be realized via the PLM/ERP software. Every product drawing, every piece of material information and every production process are connected through digitization.

The equipment can transmit the running data to MES, Internet and other networks via the PLC, sensor, etc. Therefore, GE can optimize its running parameters through the data analysis sent back by the airplane engine, so as to reduce the fuel cost. Google can realize the driverless cars.

That means for the first time in the “Industry 4.0” era, it is possible to connect resources, information, goods and human beings through digitization! Such communication includes the exchange of information between human beings, between human beings and products, between human beings and machines, between products and machines, and between machines.

Just imagine in the future, you download a personalized product order via APP, the manufacturer receives the order information via CRM/ERP, the order information is transmitted to the PLM system, the product simulation model is designed, the product and material information enters the ERP and MES system, so as to drive the supplier to start to produce materials. After being produced, the materials are sent to the factory via the Internet of Things, enter the automatic production line, the equipment is processed according to the instructions of the MES system, and the finished products get offline and are sent to you via the Internet of Things.

“Industry 4.0” is the digitization and networking of manufacturing. It creates the intelligent plant through the combination of IT technology and manufacturing technology, so that the production becomes highly flexible and personalized, so as to improve the production efficiency and the resource utilization efficiency. Germans claim that “It may take about 20 years for the real arrival of Industry 4.0”. For China, it may take longer. We have many enterprises in the 2.0 and 3.0 stages, and I think it at least takes 30 years.

Digitization or “Industry 4.0”, it is a big trend. Although only the communication between human beings is realized now, other communication also requires many conditions, e.g. the standardization of data transmission protocols and measurement standards, powerful infrastructure, security of data transmission, legal protection, talent reserve, etc., the advent of self-driving cars gives us hope.

As different industries have different characteristics and bases, the order to realize digitization is also different. I think priority can be given to the process-oriented manufacturing industries, such as food and beverage, papermaking, chemical engineering, electricity, etc., because most procedures of their manufacturing mode have been connected, the degree of automation is high, some equipment data has been able to be acquired automatically, and the difficulty of digitization is relatively quite small.

However, for the discrete manufacturing industries, such as mechanical equipment, textile and garment, electronics and electric appliances, household products, etc., because their manufacturing procedures and parts are very scattered, the quantity is huge, it’s really hard to connect, and even if the connection is realized, the cost will be very high. What is feasible for these industries is not to achieve by one step and but achieve gradually. First, connect the main procedures and materials with the lean continuous production technology. For example, expressways and high-speed rails will surely first connect Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities, and then Tier 3 and Tier 4 cities. You can first set the digital access points between plants, then between workshops, key procedures and key materials, and finally in each procedure and each material.


Intelligentization contains two meanings: One is the intelligentization of products and the other is the intelligentization of the manufacturing process.

First of all, let’s talk about the intelligentization of products. Intelligentization provides a direction for industrial and consumer goods upgrading. In addition, China has become the world's largest Internet power, plus the government continues to promote the speed increase and cost reduction of network, so as to provide a network environment for hardware intelligentization.

Everything is ready except the “Traditional Products + Intelligentization”. From smart phones, smart TVs, wearable products, smart cups to smart cars, smart robots, etc., enterprises need to continuously carry out technological innovation and invest in the intelligentization of their products.

Compared with the intelligentization of consumer goods, the intelligentization of industrial products is actually more urgent. The intelligent control module needs to be added into all equipment to automatically acquire, analyze and control the processed data; equipped with standard data interfaces, so as to be connected with the MES system of the enterprises or other information systems. Such industrial big data will help improve the operation efficiency, reduce faults and reduce energy consumption through the operation analysis of the intelligent software system.

The intelligentization of the manufacturing process is more complicated. You need to finish the transformation of the above-mentioned leanness, standardization, modularization, automation and digitization, and the investment in automation and digitization will be very high.

Intelligent manufacturing is a complicated system, and every enterprise in every industry has to find a model that suits them. You don’t have to improve the leanness, standardization, modularization, automation and digitization level in one step, but can improve it gradually. It’s important to figure out why you’re doing this and the right return on your investment.

In the next 30 years, “Made in China” needs to change from “attaching importance to speed than to quality” to “attaching more importance to quality than to speed”, keep innovating in the above ten areas, and transform to “Wisdom in China” in business mode, technology and management.