The nature of my job means that I come into contact with a lot of decision-makers from across the EMEA region. Many have built very successful careers and often large enterprises by making good decisions.
I'm always very interested about the process – and I have come to notice that good decision-makers are often very inquisitive. When they speak to me, business leaders want to know how our solutions can improve their businesses – but they often go that step further – they ask how our solutions can empower them to make better decisions.
They are often not looking for a simple answer, more a better way of approaching the challenges they face and using the expertise they have to drive their business in the future.
It's not a simple process, of course – otherwise anyone could do it! For manufacturers there is no shortage of important decisions and many other smaller ones that add up – some with an almost unfathomable amount of factors to be taken into account.
Making sense of those factors can seem daunting, but it stands to reason that the quality of the decisions we make is reliant on the quality of the information available to us.
You could say that information is the currency of decision-making – the more currency you have, the better decision you can make.
In the age of the Internet of Things (IoT), the amount of data becoming available for decision-making is growing exponentially. A simplistic understanding of how this plays out in the industrial space is that better decisions can be made.
But actually, that's not the whole picture. And I was reminded of this recently in a meeting with two leading executives from a large food and beverage manufacturer. Their needs were not about understanding how to get data, but rather, how to turn that data into better decision-making.
The idea that more data leads to better decisions (and thus improvements in efficiency or productivity) is wrong. Or at least it misses out two vital layers.
The first is connectivity (which is why you'll often hear Rockwell Automation employees talking about The Connected Enterprise).
Smart devices must integrate easily and "speak" a common language. Devices must connect to machines, machines to control systems, control systems to one another, and everything to the IT system.
The second is intelligence – and this happens at the manufacturing execution system (MES) level in real-time. Intelligence, in this sense, is about understanding the meaning and capability of the data. It's about turning that data into usable information to provide decision-making criteria – intelligence.
So data must be connected and then analysed in order to become information, information needs to collated and visualised to become intelligence.
In the age of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) this level of connectivity leads to much better decisions. Monitoring means that maintenance can be better planned and downtime can be reduced.
Software and the use of stored historical information means that best practices can be identified and replicated; tweaks can be made; productivity can be improved; and more can be achieved with existing assets.
Through software modelling it's possible to accurately predict the effects of changes before they are made – it's possible to pre-programme the same line to do things differently. Batch changes can become much more efficient; enterprises can become more flexible – more agile.
And that visibility means that more factors can be considered and more informed decisions can be made – such as cross-referencing the effect of changes to production on the amount of power used, with quantifiable costs that can drive decisions about when power-hungry processes are run according to the cost of energy.
Through the course of a week, a month, or a year, and measured across a machine, a line, a factory or multiple factories, apparently small but properly informed decisions and improvements of this nature quickly add up to huge margins on the bottom line.
And it's worth revisiting that agility question again, briefly, as we project forward into the IIoT.
As I said at the start of this piece, the best decision-makers are often looking ahead while tackling the immediate challenges they face.
In a competitive environment, agility and flexibility become market advantages. Consumers are changing, batch sizes are coming down – in some industries to a batch of one.
That is the complete opposite of what manufacturing has been about since the first days of Henry Ford's mass production lines.
But the IIoT is making this possible. Through truly Connected Enterprises, the flow of information now goes beyond the factory floor, deep into the supply chain and all the way to the consumer.
One great example of how this can involve the consumer can be seen in the production of some consumer-customisable sports footwear.
Leading manufacturers now have websites where consumers can "build" their shoes using a variety of pre-set materials and in a variety of colours. With more than 10 customisable elements and literally thousands of potential combinations available on a range of base models, the manufacturers make each pair to order within five weeks. This kind of flexibility is very popular with customers, who pay around 30% more for their potentially unique self-designed shoes.
What a Connected Enterprise can help do now is to schedule the production better to increase throughput, to reduce inventory… and many other smart things – and at the same time answer the consumer's demand for tailor-made products.
Manufacturers that can offer this kind of flexibility – by reducing to batches of one – have a market advantage in terms of offering exactly what customers want and being able to charge more for their products through Connected Enterprise approaches.
So when it comes to making decisions, it pays to be inquisitive and seek the enterprise intelligence to approach today's challenges with one eye on the future.
In the manufacturing environment, I think that means building from the ground up – getting the data, collating it, analysing it, visualising it. Turn it into intelligence and make better decisions through the principles of a Connected Enterprise.