This continues a series of columns from practitioners I respect. The category "Real Deal" describes them well.
This time it is Jason Prater who leads product and platform development teams, from design to deployment at Plex Systems, the manufacturing cloud vendor.
Here he writes about dramatic changes sensors, wearables and cloud computing are bringing to the shop floor.
Twenty years ago, it was hard for people to picture a manufacturing shop floor lined with PCs. But it happened. More and more manufacturers began to rely on desktop computers because they wanted to access data on the manufacturing process.
Today, it’s hard for people to picture a manufacturing shop floor with no PCs. But it’s going to happen. And it won’t take 20 years, or even 10.
The way technology is going, manufacturers will soon be able to leverage the Internet of Things and wearable devices to get the rich data they need at any stage of the manufacturing process.
This isn’t just a matter of wanting to get rid of big, bulky, crash-prone computers. This is the dawn of an age of “always-on” communication between man and machine. The result? Leaner, more cost-effective manufacturing.
How can a manufacturing operation thrive on data yet not have a single computer on the shop floor? This may sound far-fetched. But it’s clear that this is where we’re headed.
For example, machines are already becoming smarter (and maybe even smarter than us). We use smart refrigerators, smart thermostats, and smart smoke alarms, and we’re used to it. This is all part of a trend called the Internet of Things in which machines are talking to us, and amongst themselves, in ways that help them run better.
So, yes, the machines are already talking behind our backs. But are manufacturers talking to the machines? We at PLEX recently ran a study to answer this and other questions.
Among the manufacturers we surveyed, 48% already use sensors and 80% say they incorporate consumer mobile devices into their manufacturing operations. Some 27% use low-power Bluetooth—a technology that’s still catching on.
Manufacturers are clearly eager to let their employees communicate with machines in real time. The changes on the shop floor will be obvious, and radical.
Between mobility and the Internet of Things, I’m convinced that the PC will basically disappear from the shop floor within the next five years. Why? Manufacturers won’t need them. Instead, they’ll rely on computers that will be hidden in tablets, phones, wearables, and smart tools and machines.
What does this all mean for the forward-thinking manufacturer?
Your first order of business is to gather, store, and analyze as much data as possible. We have a customer that’s storing sound recordings of the rattles and creaks in the cars they produce. If they can identify trends in the pitches of these noises, they may be able to start predicting problems.
Another PLEX customer—a major manufacturer of large diesel engines—is using sensors to stream data back and forth to each of their custom engines. This way, maintenance staff can know instantly that an engine was built to particular specifications to meet the needs of a specific client. This information helps them deliver more tailored service.
You can’t accomplish any of this if you’re collecting data manually. It’s absolutely imperative that manufacturers tap into the Internet of Things and let their machines talk to each other. It’s equally important to move ERP systems to the cloud so that they can freely exchange data with machines.
Here’s a stat that may blow your mind: more than 50% of the traffic in the PLEX manufacturing cloud is already machine-to-machine. Yeah, it’s safe to say that our customers are way ahead of the curve.
Of course, gathering and analyzing data is just one part of the equation. How will people interact with this data on a day-to-day basis?
Get ready to see lots of your employees walking around with Google Glass and other wearables. Rather than sitting down at a computer to get the results of the latest quality check or download a report on whether machines are running, they’ll just get alerts and real-time updates on their glasses.
Think of what this really means. Less time at a computer means more time at a shop floor. Frequent updates delivered to your body allow for faster responses, earlier intervention, greater efficiency, and less waste. Who wouldn’t want that?
But this doesn’t stop at the four walls of your factory, or even at the borders of your country. If you’re taking your operations global (as so many manufacturers are), you need to gather equally rich data from all facilities. And when you close a plant in Thailand and open one in Brazil, you need to be able to stop and start the data collection process with the ease of flipping a switch.
You can’t do that with on-premise ERP—but you can with cloud-based manufacturing solutions. So, as your machines continue to chat, and as you look for ways to crunch the data they generate, the cloud will become Command Central for the global manufacturing enterprise.