Connecting and integrating machines is not an easy task in manufacturing. The heterogeneous nature of all the things contributing to manufacturing processes is staggering. Typically, systems are made up of a wide range of legacy equipment, operating systems, and industrial protocols, and cobbled together by generations of engineering and M&A. So how do manufacturers connect and integrate such a complex landscape? How do organizations speed toward high-value levers associated with a smart factory and unlock new productivity, quality, and cost management forms?
In our previous blog about process instrumentation, we discussed the role of sensors and integrating those into the business. Unlike modern sensors—most of which are built atop newer technologies and leverage modern protocols native to business systems, middleware, and cloud platforms—manufacturing is a wash of legacy industrial machinery with most not capable of connecting and integrating with much of anything.
And let’s be honest—most of these machines are older and limited in their ability to connect and integrate with modern IT and cloud infrastructure. These machines are usually comprised of robots; industrial control systems; third-party leased equipment; building management systems controlling the environmental conditions of a plant, tools, pumps, CNCs; and one-off specialty machines designed in-house to serve a unique purpose.
Further complicating an operational team’s efforts, most machines represent a significant cybersecurity risk to the typical manufacturing organization. Ultimately, technical complications and business risks result in an operational environment usually bifurcated with only select machines integrated into the balance of the business. This results in a lack of visibility, as well as limited data collection and automation against key portions of plant processes and business operations. It limits the organization’s ability to integrate with business systems like ERP or MES, next-generation cloud services, and more exciting solutions like artificial intelligence or machine learning.
It’s this obstacle of connecting and integrating that prevents business advancement and digital transformation. For older manufacturers with built-up technical debt, the problem is only more profound. Up against startups or newer firms built from the ground up, older firms find themselves competing with newer machines, modern processes, and tight integration with current business systems. All of this makes these organizations more efficient—and that means more competitive and able to deliver a better customer experience.
Connecting and integrating machines requires an entirely different approach, but it’s not impossible and doesn’t have to be complicated. Modern software and hardware solutions exist to easily connect the unconnectable, leading to a “no machine left behind” strategy that allows organizations to connect even the oldest devices capable of basic I/O or serial connections, as well as leveraging modern industrial devices standards and protocols.
Because of these technologies, manufacturers can now connect almost anything in their operational tech estate, creating new ways to read and write machine data to automate factory operations. This allows manufacturers (even those with high technical debt) to quickly connect their operational equipment with SCADA, business systems, cloud services, business intelligence and reporting, AI/ML platforms, and even automate between machines. Most organizations start with a single bounded challenge in their plants. Still, it’s easy to see how this capability can quickly become a powerful change agent to a manufacturer’s industrial transformation objectives and lead to long-term operational excellence.
It’s also important to point out that this technology has no physical boundaries. Let’s face it: our companies are radically changing. We often focus only on the machines that exist in the typical four walls of factories, warehouses, research labs, and office buildings. Machines are also present in smart products, remote facilities, vehicle fleets, and even under the possession of customers. Machines outside the four walls represent key business processes worth connecting, integrating, and optimizing. The same solutions that allow manufacturers to transform the typical operational equipment can also be leveraged to connect outside of a facility to drive improved productivity and customer experience, and to deliver new business models to drive top-line revenue growth.
Whatever your business objectives, most manufacturers are dealing with workforce shortages, increased operational costs, and seeking more resilient solutions to drive productivity in a challenging economy. At some point, organizations must decide how best to work through lack of skilled talent and how best to utilize their employees. Consider automation as one option to augment your workforce, eliminate error-prone non-value-added activities and defect escapes, and deliver improved operations that help your business gain and sustain a competitive advantage.
Want to learn more about how Connection advises clients on these topics, and the outstanding solutions we have available to digitally transform your operations? Contact one of our manufacturing specialists today.