Big data, cloud computing, mobile devices and social media are starting to make huge changes in the ways manufacturers operate
By Janet Kreiling, Contributing Writer
The first automobiles looked a lot like horse-drawn carriages, without the horses. The automobile was a disruptive technology. People who were used to traveling behind one, two, four or six horses now had a score, and eventually hundreds, under the hood. They had speed and extended range, which made for radically different ways of living and working.
Four technologies today have the same disruptive power, especially when used together, according to Enrique Andaluz, industry solutions manager of Worldwide Discrete Manufacturing at Microsoft Corp., a Rockwell Automation Strategic Alliance Partner. The four technologies — cloud storage and computing, big data, mobile communications and social media — already are changing how workers from the plant floor up to the executive suite are running companies.
And that's before most companies have experienced the synergy those four technologies create together.
The technologies so disrupt the way a company manages and benefits from data that it may even modify its existing business model. “We have observed that the leading companies who have experimented early have been able to change drastically to become ‘service providers’ rather than only traditional manufacturers or machine builders,” Andaluz says.
The amount of data available is growing exponentially, in manufacturing as everywhere else. "Smart sensors are producing exponential growth in data points," he points out. "Big data" tends to be used for massive accumulations — but that's what Andaluz says manufacturing data is becoming.
"Statistics show that out of the big volume of data that’s currently capable of being gathered, only about 7% of it is used,” he adds. Often by the time it's compiled into usable information, it's already out of date.
Keith McPherson, director of market development at Rockwell Automation, points out that within a few years, data from the plant floor will eclipse the amount of business data that companies generate. Even now, a lot of that data already is being analyzed by on-site programmable logic controllers (PLCs), so by the time it gets upstream, considerable analysis has already taken place.
What Do Industrial Firms Need?
What's needed now is to combine all of that exponentially growing data from all the systems that run the plant, which together comprises machine intelligence, with information from business applications to create operations intelligence. This can incorporate data from all of an enterprise's locations, including supply chains, with reporting on local conditions — economics, buying patterns, even the weather — to monitor immediately what's happening in every place where the company operates or sells.
What’s also needed in many cases is to take it all on the road. You need the cloud to process and store data from all over, but also make it available all over, in real time. You might run individual machines in a plant in Malaysia from your tablet while you're in Rome. An executive traveling to Japan can have the same information — in real time — as is available in the home office and be able to take action if needed.
That's only one aspect of mobility. Mobility is not about the device, it’s about people being mobile. People reaching anyone else they need to anytime, anywhere is now the norm. People can reach coworkers to share knowledge and to hold video conferences to resolve business issues on the spot.
This adds in the social part. A call center agent can consult with a technical expert in real time, no matter where that expert is, and the expert can access the service history of the equipment and the history of other units, check for factory updates and other advisories — for any location in the world, from any location.
Using these technologies in combination clearly multiplies their individual contributions.
Evolving Business Models
These technologies can and do change business models. As a case in point, Andaluz cites M.G. Bryan Heavy Equipment Co., based in Grand Prairie, Texas. M.G. Bryan manufactures trucks that pump water for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, wells. You can think about them as mini plants on wheels providing service to wells — a valuable service because many wells operate in extreme, isolated areas.
Rockwell Automation sensors, software and programmable controllers in the trucks use its FactoryTalk® integrated Operations Management suite of software to collect and process the data on Microsoft's Windows Azure cloud platform. Now, rather than a tech having to visit each well, download data onto a flash drive and drive to the next well, the tech can pull it all from the cloud and monitor the equipment and the process from remote locations. They can generate reports in real time, rather than daily or weekly. Truck maintenance data also is collected to ensure trucks get what they need.
M.G. Bryan is now selling the ability to generate analytic reports to their customers along with its trucks. This has created a new service offering for M.G. Bryan and provided a competitive differentiation for their trucks.
Another example: Companies can pull information on products from customers' reviews on the Internet. Or they can set up collaborative spaces across multiple enterprises through which customers can become familiar with a product, seeing into various layers, and offer suggestions for improvement. Through social media, companies can learn of problems early on and fix them, perhaps before the product launch. "This goes beyond a B2B connection," Andaluz says. "It's direct 'B2C' communication that yields unprecedented value."
Back on the plant floor, tablets are becoming the new human-machine interface (HMI) — mobile and with up-to-the-minute data. Manufacturers combine real-time analytics and virtual environments, for instance, to create highly productive augmented reality environments. Sensors can be used to enable new natural user interfaces to detect movements and gestures that can be used to control a machine, or perhaps determine that a machine operator is growing sleepy and take action. Or they can stop a production line by using voice commands.
"Companies like Rockwell Automation have a unique opportunity," Andaluz says. "The company's FactoryTalk VantagePoint EMI puts it in the best possible position to help companies advance their businesses using the cloud." Microsoft, he adds, "is the only company with a range of platforms for business applications, infrastructure, productivity and collaboration that interoperate seamlessly in hybrid models whether in the cloud or on customer premises.
Is the promise of these disruptive technologies pie in the sky? Every one of the technologies is now in use, although most companies so far are trying only one at a time, Andaluz says. “We are expecting to see quantum changes from applying them all together, once companies mature their thoughts and embrace these new technologies.”