Fifteen years ago, I was studying for a master’s degree in industrial automation at a technical university. We learned about open systems, industrial internet, old and new programming languages, collaborating robots, software-controlled machine clusters etc. Everything that you needed to build the smart factory. I thought all this was everyday life in the manufacturing industry but when I got my first manufacturing job as a maintenance PM in 2003…boy, was I disappointed!
Since then I have been outside the manufacturing industry for 10 years, working with software startups in Silicon Valley. Returning to the field of manufacturing two years ago I was prepared to go back in time but… boy, was I disappointed again.
It feels like nothing has happened!
It is the same “you could…” “it’s possible to…” etc., with technology being the primary focus. The buzzwords have changed, but academia is still arguing about protocol standards such as OPC, etc.
Why hasn’t it changed?
Why is the connected, smart factory still not here yet (with a few very rare exceptions such as Whirlpool, Siemens, Hirotec, HP and Ocado)? After attending hundreds of meetings and conferences over the past three years my observations are:
- The past wave of technology investments, call it Industry 3.0, was very well implemented in many European countries. Up until now it has been good enough and the ROI has not supported a larger upgrade.
- Few companies start with a blank page. Legacy must be considered in both IT systems and the work force—and most industrial companies have a bunch of older systems and people who are used to these older systems.
- Those darned protocols… it has obviously been hard to agree on a common language between machines, PLCs, ERP and cloud. And there are a number of reasons for this; vendor lock-in, country-specific research, tech upgrades made in phases over a longer time, etc.
- The wrong approach to pilot projects. Most companies I have talked to have gone tech-first, i.e. “let’s see what we can do with this piece of tech”. Which has in many cases resulted in nothing more than a huge amount of data and no real business case to generate more money. We have also seen a lot of useless apps…
What can we do differently?
- Build the business case and define the goal. Do not start with the technology without a clear purpose. Communicate the big picture. What do we require to achieve growth or productivity and why?
- Start with one problem. “What data do we need to solve a specific problem in our production?” or “How can we measure and trust a specific KPI?” Often the data is there; pull it out and put it in a new context. Do it manually at first if necessary.
- Consolidate data and people. Break down structures. No more Production vs. Maintenance, rather uptime and utilization working together.
- Find partners to help you think bigger and outside the box. Internal projects will almost always focus on the present time and situation…
When you do get to the technology aspect, why not look at the steps towards software automation and think; “Have we forgotten something along the way?
- Get data
- Filter and visualize it
- Create smart suggestions to actions
- Full automation = actions done by system
Many people are asking about #4, but have we really gotten to #1? And I am not sure we need to install millions of retrofit sensors or other gadgets to get there. There are so many machines and PLC systems out there and very few are connected in a modern sense, but the data is there, it’s just ‘stuck’ in one place or within one closed system.
Imagine what you could do with a solid business case, confirmed problem to solve and reliable data to explore the solution!
*Dagens Industri is Sweden’s leading business and financial daily
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