What Every Company Can Learn from the Best Smart Manufacturers

The Next Generation of manufacturing holds a great promise—and profit.

A similar recognition is that supply-chain managers cannot be one step removed from actual manufacturing, which is what Pratt & Whitney has discovered in East Hartford. There, on the second floor of its main headquarters building, Di Perna has created a war room where large monitors cover the walls with information about which suppliers have promised deliveries of parts on what dates. “We want to integrate data to look at problems in the supply chain before they become problems on our production floor,” Di Perna explains. “We cannot afford to have an interruption.” This is a particularly serious problem in aerospace, where lead times are often quite lengthy. “You order something today, and two years later it shows up,” he says.

“We want to integrate data to look at problems in the supply chain before they become problems on our production floor.”

The supply-chain specialists in the room are using Microsoft’s extended customer-relationship management software to examine whether every supplier has ordered the raw materials to make the product that Pratt is expecting and whether the supplier has the capacity to get the job done. This is Big Data at its best because Pratt has access to many of its suppliers’ own computer systems.

If a supplier has not ordered key materials or does not have an assembly line ready to go, Pratt knows it is at risk of suffering a disruption. If they suspect an “event” or disruption is about to occur, Pratt’s supply-chain mavens have two large monitors where they can schedule face-to-face consultations with suppliers. If reassuring answers are not forthcoming, the supply-chain specialists conduct an “escalation” until the potential problem reaches the top management levels of both Pratt and the supplier—in a hurry. “In a supply chain, there is data everywhere,” says Di Perna. “That’s a critical tool for us.”

There are many other strands of the new generation of manufacturing that are emerging, including 3D printing. The technology behind this potentially revolutionary way of making parts by printing layer after layer of a given metal or plastic has existed for decades. However, it seems to have finally established a clear foothold, particularly in aerospace with General Electric, Pratt and Europe’s Airbus all using it. “Already, planes are flying with 3D-printed parts in them,” says Dassault’s Comstock, a veteran of 25 years of manufacturing experience.

Imagine that rather than taking a block of expensive titanium and scraping and carving a part out of it—resulting in much of the titanium being wasted—a 3D printer can put down layers of titanium powder and seal each one so that the object has the characteristics of regular titanium—without wasting any of the precious metal. “You also could build products you’ve never been able to build before because of the technological limitations of machine tools,” Comstock explains.

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