Managing Factory Equipment from Anywhere

Ryan Spurr

Before the pandemic, there was a trend of shifting engineering to a “shared engineering service” model. This was largely driven by the need to attract and retain talent in the form of a workplace benefit, or a consolidation effort, as previously seen with organizational constructs like IT or procurement services groups. More specifically, this effort involved locating engineers in places where they desired to live, and where there were robust workforce pools and educational institutions versus placing engineers in remote locations across the country where factories resided.

During the pandemic, with engineers and support resources sent home, a different trend emerged. Rather than being concerned with attractive workplace locations, the need for engineers to work from anywhere was focused on keeping the workforce healthy while also keeping the factory operational. 

The truth is that both work approaches have long been used in some fashion to provide employees or top talent with degrees of flexibility, albeit on a lesser scale or case by case basis. Fast forward to today, when we find both approaches are leading to systemic and essential changes in how modern manufacturing companies operate. Manufacturers must deliver both workforce flexibility (aka, work from anywhere) and the need to provide resilient operations (aka, engineers manage machinery from anywhere). 

Connect IT with OT

It’s impossible to connect the factory and its equipment with engineers when many of the equipment isn’t connected or integrated with IT. OT/IT convergence is quickly becoming a top priority for manufacturing leaders as they seek to create a more vertically integrated company capable of driving smart manufacturing initiatives at scale.

Modern operational infrastructure and security are essential to connecting critical equipment to the balance of the enterprise, as well as engineers working from anywhere. According to Forrester, manufacturers will increase investment into smart factory infrastructure by 40% in 2022.
Therefore it’s important to consider the underlying infrastructure from industrial networking, industrial security, edge compute, and industrial IoT (IIoT) software necessary to properly connect, integrate, and automate the factory with the balance of the technical estate. Topics include east-west traffic management, industrial deep packet inspection, industrial protocol support, integration with corporate SIEM/SOC for monitoring of potential security threats, and the kind of hardware support that advantages a factory’s high availability needs and organizational requirements.

Provide Engineers with Real-time Data Visibility 

It’s critical for engineers (whether facilities, maintenance, or industrial controls) to keep tabs on their machines, sensors, and other smart products. Relying on traditional air-gapped SCADA platforms or onsite inspections limits engineers’ effectiveness in the modern remote or resilient environment.  Engineers (and all support roles realistically) should have real-time access to key data and machine health. 

Therefore, in addition to connecting equipment or operations with IT, it’s crucial to also focus on data acquisition in the production line and environment systems. The heterogeneous nature of factories implies implementing modern Industrial IoT (IIoT) platforms capable of connecting with almost any industrial machine. These solutions must support a wide range of device drivers and industrial protocols. They must also be capable of quickly integrating devices and protocols natively with IT solutions, including data center, cloud services, and remote monitoring to mobile devices or any company-owned asset used by employees. 

Accessing and Controlling Your Industrial Equipment

Connecting and controlling industrial equipment is another focus for remote teams. For example, today’s solutions offer engineers the ability to connect securely to industrial equipment or smart machines to monitor, troubleshoot, and take action with the PLC or device itself and manage a fleet of edge compute solutions in the factory or field-deployed smart products.

While connecting and controlling machines is essential, so is the ability to monitor, troubleshoot, or conduct kaizen events remotely visually. The powers of observation still play an indispensable role in designing, building, deploying, and supporting equipment in factories, wherever they exist. The ability to use modern camera solutions, AR/remote collaboration headsets, and integration with the most common collaboration platforms also contributes to engineers’ improved and connected workplace.

The Future of Remote Factory Management

Whatever your company’s drivers for business change, engineering talent exists everywhere and includes salaried employees, contractors, and third parties. The need to connect engineers from anywhere is core to any future smart factory and modern technology strategy, a critical tool for the modern workforce and talent management, and essential to managing digitally integrated factories or smart products domestically and globally.

Connection’s Manufacturing Practice understands the challenges and goals in modernizing factories, exploring new smart product services, and how it all integrates with the larger IT and corporate  strategies. To learn more or to discuss remote management further, contact one of our manufacturing specialists today!

Ryan Spurr is the Director of Manufacturing Strategy and Business Development at Connection with more than 15 years of experience in manufacturing and information technology leadership. He holds an MBA, MSIT, and is an ASQ member.

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