Like all industries, manufacturing is undergoing major changes as companies embrace new digital technologies that can improve customer satisfaction, enhance product quality and optimize operational performance. The Wall Street Journal featured several aspects of this massive shift to digital business models in their June 8 report: The Future of Manufacturing. I shared comments in the reports story, When Smart Technology Meets Old Machinery which focuses on some of the specific challenges companies face in digitizing the shop floor.
Automation on the shop floor is by no means a new concept. It can be argued that automation is almost as old as manufacturing itself. So, what then is the meaning of digitizing the shop floor and why does it play a critical role in the future of manufacturing? I encourage you to read the Wall Street Journals report and look forward to your comments here on additional thoughts on this important step in many manufacturers digital journey.
A look at the trends
Classical automation systems were built from sensors that send data to specialized electronics that were responsible for the actual functioning of the automation or control system. These systems were either integrally part of the manufacturing line via OEM relationships or supplied by specialized automation and control companies. These systems were largely autonomous, used proprietary communications software and protocols and were confined to the automation and control of shop floor level processes only.
Today, we are seeing this automation and control arena undergoing a softwarization which is consistent with trends in other areas of electronics and communications. Software defined radio and software defined networking are terms that are widely used today. What this means is that there is a trend to build shop floor automation and control systems using commodity sensors and computing platforms and to implement all the actual functionality into software. Companies are also moving towards using standard Internet protocols (TCP/IP) for communications rather than the older proprietary communication protocols.
The challenges of going digital
I see two primary types of challenges in digitizing the shop floor. The first is retrofitting the automation systems on older equipment. There may not be enough space to mount the new sensors on the old equipment and additionally the new sensors may need to be wired to the control unit. Some sensors may need power and the existing equipment may not be wired to deliver power at the locations the sensors are to be mounted.
The second major challenge is security. Using well known Internet protocols means that security has to be managed rigorously. The popularity of Internet protocols also means that there are many people who know about and can potentially exploit vulnerabilities in those protocols. Given that failures on the shop floor can have safety implications to people and property, it is imperative that security issues pertaining to new generation automation and control systems are managed rigorously and adequately funded. This can be another obstacle for companies in their justification and process of adopting digital practices.
Going digital: The implications and opportunities
The dropping prices and increasing capabilities of commodity sensors and computing platforms with the ubiquitous deployment of wireless networks are enabling a far more sophisticated level of automation and control than was possible with specialized electronics. While this has implications for control systems themselves in terms of reduced and rationalized inventories of hardware items and simplified support, its implication for the organizations is far greater.
This trend creates the opportunity to unify the shop floor processes with the other enterprise management processes to achieve a level of organizational orchestration that will have a profound impact on efficiencies. Consider a manufacturer that could receive forecasts from customer inventory depots directly via a sensor network into its order management system, which in turn then could send a manufacturing schedule directly to the shop floor manufacturing execution systems directly, with minimal human intervention. Such a capability would have a profound impact on a companys competitiveness.
There are myriad benefits for manufacturers to digitize their shop floors. I welcome your comments on the Wall Street Journal article When Smart Technology Meets Old Machinery and any insights or questions you have about digitizing your shop floor.