Highway to the Factory of the Future

Highway Factory Future

By Larry Korak, Director of Industry & Strategy, Industrial Manufacturing, Infor

Tech-savvy manufacturers have learned they can turn to IT solutions to solve their most pressing operational pains. Based on decades of witnessing launch after launch of new IT solutions, they know there is bound to be a bigger-better-faster application to be rolled out by solution providers at the next major trade event, like the upcoming FabTech show.

Wise manufacturers also know that bigger-better-faster applications are not enough. Simply adding more bells and whistles added to the ERP solution can’t transform a bottom line performance report.  Complicating an already stressed IT infrastructure only accelerates the imminent implosion. Investing in add-on solutions and specialized point applications can be like putting a two-inch bandage on a fractured arm.

Foreseeing the Future

While short term solutions for the various operational ailments are tempting, they can mask the underlying broad issues. The big picture issues of Interoperability, deployment, and advanced ERP functionality must be addressed first.

In order to truly optimize the IT infrastructure of a manufacturing plant, there must be an underlying strategic plan and vision of the future. In other words, you must know where you want to go before you start off on the journey. Connections have to be synchronized.

The future of manufacturing is fuzzy, but promising. Media hype promises a brand new world of interconnected devices, scanners communicating with the global supply chain and data analysis which can predict the day and time when your next customer will contemplate a purchase. Are these game-changing marvels of technology realistic to expect and can a manufacturer choose one highsizzle IT solution which is the turn-key answer?

Yes and no. The optimistic view of a future manufacturing world where devices people and process are all connected to create customercentric operations that run with automated harmony—and profits—is attainable. The technology exists. The desire exists. The ways and means can be put in motion. Is there one magic bullet to achieve this? No. The Factory of the Future will deploy several technologies in order to be on the forefront of innovations and competitive prowess. Cloud deployment, mobile connectivity, Big Data analytics, sensor reading capabilities, shop floor automation, and supply chain visibility are among the critical applications that will combine to create the uber-efficient manufacturing plant of 2020.

Interoperability

In the recent past, integration was the buzz word used to refer to the ability of the multiple systems to connect and provide real-time visibility. While those are still important considerations, system experts are now stressing interoperability as the new hallmark to achieve. Interoperability refers to the interaction of systems, an important step beyond the ability to access and view data. Systems must be able to receive, communicate, and apply decision-making logic to shared data in order to automate actions. Automation is the key word. For manufacturers to overcome growing labor skill gaps, competitive pricing pressures, and product configuration demands, tasks must be automated. Decisions must be automated. Even responses to ad hoc non-compliance alerts must be streamlined.

In order to achieve that level of automation and decision-making efficiency the various operational branches must connect, consume, apply data logic and the resulting insights. That’s not your father’s financial management or ERP system.

Deployment

Deployment is the next foundational issue to be considered when devising a strategy for the Factory of the Future. There is no denying that the growing acceptance of cloud solutions is dramatically changing the IT landscape. Cloud-based solutions are here and here to stay, and not just for the edge applications. Manufacturers are turning to cloud deployment for their critical ERP solutions at adoption rates much higher than anticipated by some skeptics.

Almost two-thirds of manufacturing firms have at least two applications residing in public or private clouds, and say they will pursue “cloud-first” or “cloud-also” strategies in the future, according to a recent study from IDC Manufacturing Insights.

The study, “Worldwide Cloud Adoption in the Manufacturing Industry,” is based on data from surveys such as IDC’s 2014 CloudView Survey, which quizzed 593 manufacturers in 17 countries.

Highway_sidenote2Why are manufacturers taking this leap to the cloud? Manufacturing  leaders are pragmatic and practical professionals who understand the return on investment (ROI) benefits. The data simply points to cloud deployment as the answer to the issues of agility, ease of implementation, cost control, and the need to stay modern—without the hassles of upgrading modifications.

According to an IDG survey of senior IT decision makers, 73 percent believe cloud will increase speed of service delivery. Another 82 percent say cloud will enable new and efficient ways to reach customers.3

The vast storage capabilities provide the icing on the cake. Modern cloud computing opens new opportunities for storing vast amounts of data, whether it is historical records from legacy solutions or lakes of raw data collected from data sensors embedded in equipment, on consumer products, or within the workings of internal assets.

Cloud storage makes the Internet of Things (IoT) manageable. IoT strategies will likely be a key influencer in most manufacturers’ future got-to-market plans. It be near impossible to avoid the impact—and the resulting pressures to keep up with changing market conditions that will emerge from IoT innovations. We are still in the infancy of defining the true potential, but early glimpses and use cases are already staggering.

McKinsey1 cites the example of data collected from an oil rig. Now one rig can contain as many as 30,000 separate sensors that track a wide range of conditional and operational variables, like temperature, vibration, flow etc.  It’s estimated that only 1 percent of the data points are examined in this early stage of adoption. Today’s goal is to simply detect and control anomalies—not to go examine optimization and prediction, which is where the greatest value will be achieved.  McKinsey predicts IoT technologies could unleash $11.1 trillion in new economic value worldwide by 2015.2

Advanced ERP Functionality

No matter what smart manufacturing initiatives you deploy the actions and consequences must be tracked, analyzed and reported. The ERP solution still provides the critical last step in keeping the manufacturing plant operating and tracking financial transactions as well as inventory, supply chain, account management, human capital and logistics. A long list of other departmental needs, such as aftermarket service, product configurations, plant maintenance, and lifecycle management, may also be integrated and assigned to the ERP tier.

Basic functionality that may have been sufficient to run a plant in the last decade must be amped up. Because optimizing resources—including time of personnel is so essential— usability has become a focus of modern solutions. Today, ERP solutions feature intuitive screens which push relevant contextual data to the user. The software anticipates questions, provides proactive suggestions, and alerts decision makers at the earliest signs of non-compliance to a prescribed process flow.

Modern ERP solutions have also broken the traditional shackles of time, place, and connectivity. Personnel can now access critical data 24/7 using smart devices. They can also easily collaborate using business social tools with colleagues, contractors, and customers.

Besides being mobile and social, modern ERP solutions have vertical industry functionality built in and automate complexities such as regulation compliance, strict quality control standards and Engineer-to-Order (ETO) processes.

Where to Begin?

While manufacturers may recognize the need for interoperability, cloud deployment and advanced ERP functionality, they may be overwhelmed when it comes to making IT purchases. The abundance of choices and the high stakes can be intimidating.

The IT decision makers – along with chief officers – must agree upon priorities and establish the must-have goals. Events like FabTech provide an opportunity to kick the tires on a wide assortment of solutions for manufacturing optimization. Some will tout the bells and whistles. Some will focus on the engine. Some with highlight the short term benefits.

The truly tech savvy manufacturing professional will be able to navigate the clutter and stay focused on the roadmap. Keep your eye on the road and watch for the critical landmarks: interoperability, deployment and ERP functionality.