Wednesday, 6 August 2014

4 Big Trends that Impact Industrial Automation and What To Do About Them, Part 1 of 2

Every decade has its big manufacturing trends and hyped-up IT issue(s). Remember Y2K? Nowadays there are several topics that have been the subject of numerous articles in manufacturing trade publications. These include:
  1. The Internet of Things (IoT)
  2. Big Data
  3. Cloud Computing
  4. Industry 4.0.
All of these trends involve a lot of devices networked together and a lot of data available to do things. They also include deciding whether data is stored and applications accessed from the computer next to you or from a server located somewhere else.
The good news is: The supporting technologies behind all the buzzwords are already available. Are they empty hype, a valid threat, or an opportunity? (the answer is yes). In this article, I’ll tackle each of these topics one by one, focusing on what you need to know to sort out reality and react to each.
1. Connected Industrial Devices aka the Internet of Things (IoT)
The IoT is about a lot of industrial devices networked together. For example, I’ve encountered automotive plants with 8,000 devices on a single network and consumer products plants with 12,000.
The benefits of networking these devices include:
  • Managing everything from anywhere.
  • Reducing complexity and hardware costs with one network technology.
  • Moving control and information at will.
  • Expanding it all easily.
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The Internet of Things (IoT) is about connecting industrial devices together and taking advantage of the connectivity for business improvement.
The IoT ChallengeThe challenge is in learning the new technology and understanding how to carefully design for systems that dwarf even the largest fieldbuses.
As the IoT concept continues to develop, vendors and standards groups will take care of the hard stuff. The technology will evolve to accommodate the growth—more wireless will be added, everything will be made more secure, higher levels of network traffic will get managed, and more IP addresses will be created.
When all is said and done, you’ll be able to continue as before, just with a few more zeroes in the number of devices on your network.
The IoT OpportunityUltimately, however, it will be up to you to decide how your company can operate differently when virtually anything can be on your network.
2. The Next Frontier of Manufacturing IT: Big Data
Big Data is about having a ton of information to use. Ten years ago, manufacturers recognized they could and should store production data and, in response, they added storage space at an alarmingly fast rate.
The Big Data ChallengeNow that all this data is at hand, more than one manufacturer has been known to say: “We’re collecting everything, but we aren’t really using any of it; and we aren’t sure what we should do with it all.”
This trend continues today, but with software that knows how to analyze and help you use that data. Some of the best technology is derived from search engine and web companies, like Google and Amazon that measure, interpret and record every twitch their users make. Vendors will continue to make data transport and storage bigger and faster, and will keep creating software to help you use the data.
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The challenge with Big Data is how to use it to gain efficiencies, insight speed and competitive advantage.
The Big Data OpportunityYour decision is how to connect the information “gold” in your hands to your company’s business challenges to see new opportunities to gain efficiencies, insight, speed and competitive advantage.
3. Cloud Computing
Cloud computing is about storing your information and computing power somewhere other than the computer next to you. Today, most see cloud computing as an opportunity to gain more computing power and storage space, while reducing the overall cost of maintaining and managing IT equipment and software. They also see new ways to collaborate with others.
While the computing aspect of cloud computing has a ways to go to become truly viable for the industrial space, storage is coming on strong as an easy way to back up and share data.
The Cloud Computing ChallengeLike the IoT and Big Data, vendors will handle the technology issues here as well. Your job is to assess the benefits and risks of having your critical data available and secure when it is located and managed by someone else, somewhere else.
In the industrial world, we define “real-time” and “mission-critical” different than the IT group, so our comfort level with what and how the cloud can work for us may vary dramatically. Proceed here with caution.
The Cloud Computing OpportunityOnce satisfied, however, you can determine how your company might benefit by having virtually unlimited computing power, storage and, eventually, new avenues of collaboration.
4. Industry 4.0
Industry 4.0/Manufacturing 4.0, which originated in Germany, is about the strategic use of smart devices. As a frame of reference, consider this:
  • In the 1990s, a photo eye was available that held more than 30 pieces of information when networked on DeviceNet.
  • About the same time, variable frequency drives (VFDs) and motor starters went from having only a few analog and digital signals tied in with their power to sharing hundreds of pieces of information when networked.

The point here is that the technology behind Industry 4.0 isn’t new.
The Industry 4.0 Opportunity and ChallengeThe new opportunity with Industry 4.0 is using the wealth of information available from smart, networked devices to revolutionize industrial processes.
The challenge is to think big and drive the change necessary within your organization to capitalize on information available today to for success tomorrow.
Poised to Take AdvantageGiven that the supporting technologies behind all these futuristic industry concepts are available today, the question is: Are you ready to take advantage of them?
In part 2 of this series I will address the steps you need to take to take advantage of these 4 big trends. I will also present some ideas of how these trends might be used by forward thinking organizations.
What do you think of Big Data or the Internet of Things? Is your organization examining how to use them for competitive advantages? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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