New challenges arising from the current COVID-19 pandemic are driving more manufacturers to start their journey towards digitising the factory. Market demand has changed due to a variety of factors such as retrenchment and remote working. Quarantine and social distancing protocols have reduced the number of people working on the factory floor. Shipping delays have complicated supply chains. Smarter, data-driven factories help companies overcome several of these challenges and support a workforce that is becoming more remote. But going digital has its own unique set of challenges.
Inconsistent infrastructure and a general lack of available data are often initial obstacles to overcome. This includes everything from automation to software systems of different ages and vintages that may or may not be able to share data. Human resource shortages can be a problem. Can we assemble the proper team of stakeholders that can minimize risks in our digital projects? These types of projects are viewed as being complex and having high costs attached to them. Manufacturing operations by their nature can be complex, and it can be very easy for digital solutions to mirror this complexity if they aren’t shepherded correctly. Possibly the most difficult challenge to overcome may be stakeholders’ poor experiences with prior attempts at transformation. Previous bad experiences may keep people from fully engaging in another project. We need the right tools and strategies to overcome these challenges.
Tools and opportunities
Fortunately, a variety of technologies and products in today’s marketplace provide opportunities to meet these challenges head-on. Advances in IIoT devices offer a cost-effective alternative to infrastructure projects focused on data acquisition. They can leverage existing off-the-shelf sensors and communicate over RF networks rather than WiFi that can be unreliable in industrial environments. They also specialize in bridging the IT/OT divide. Corporate IT networks typically limit communication from factory floor automation to the Internet. IIoT is specifically designed to get around this barrier.
Cloud computing isn’t just for Software as a Service (SaaS). Private clouds allow IT to stand up powerful servers to handle large data sets from across the enterprise and leverage machine learning to generate predictive analytics. The cloud also makes it easier to access data beyond the walls of the factory as employees work remotely.
A distributed workforce means that automation is no longer just about machines and equipment. Automating manual processes becomes both a need and an opportunity. Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) that provide workflow management tools can reduce time delays associated with these activities and allow the factory floor to function with less people. Look for workflow applications that can orchestrate activities across multiple disciplines, such as quality and maintenance, and have a visualization component that puts the status of a process front and centre.
There are also new opportunities for planning and scheduling tools. Even businesses that historically have consistent product demand and/or low product mixes may wish to give these tools a second look. They specialize in optimizing the sequence of pending work orders for the shop floor while also providing long-term planning of production resources based on forecasts. Changes to staffing and experience levels on the shop floor can directly impact how well different equipment and lines run. When these tools can update scheduling rules automatically with actual run times from previous orders, we get a more accurate production schedule that requires fewer adjustments.
A final recommendation on how to proceed with adopting any of these technologies and tools is keep it as simple as possible. Don’t attempt to complete your transformation in one giant step. Find the best starting points for your digital journey that provide immediate value without requiring the entire picture to be painted. Select systems that can be implemented in phases to help minimize the risk of a longer-term project. Find trusted business partners with the experience and know-how to help guide you to your destination.
Evolving product management and advancement
Technologies are changing rapidly. Initially they come with a lot of hype and little in the way of how they can best offer value. Our job at ESM is to go beyond the buzz, to determine which “shiny new objects” will have true staying power and are best suited to incorporate into the products and systems we represent. It’s more important than ever to leverage feedback loops from our clients and business partners to better understand the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis.
As the traditional lines between MES, MOM, and SCADA are blurred we continue to challenge and rethink the definitions of what our product offering and services can be. We find the right way to implementing new tools and technologies fit your business without making the process of acquiring and adopting them overly complex.
Even with the adversity that many people and businesses are currently facing, it’s still an exciting time to rethink existing paradigms for manufacturing execution, to be innovative, and to bring new tools to the marketplace that help make the digital journey as simple as possible.