Could you run your business without email? It’s an easy question to answer today, but could you have answered the same question as easily in 1994 before email exploded and became commonplace? The same is true with much of the technological advancement of this century; the PC, the cell phone, the smartphone. Many managers will remember desperately trying to justify Blackberry smart phones for mobile workforces. Unfortunately, the advantages sermonized by these managers largely fell on deaf ears as the return on investment wasn’t clear in the early days. Years later the smartphone is equally as important as eye glasses to some people, not being able see without either of them. However, many would still be challenged to put a dollar value to the benefit that the smart phone brings. The emerging technologies in manufacturing are of the same creed.
Certainly connected machines will change the way products are manufactured just as the PC and smartphone have changed the way businesses run.
The quickly attainable result and arguably the reason every machine should be connected today is to replace inefficient manual processes. In many machining factories, line supervisors are sent out three times a day to collect parts counts with a clipboard. The collected count is transferred to an excel spreadsheet which in turn is used to evaluate the output of the machine and production line. Additionally, when a machine breaks the operator must search out the line supervisor who invariably files a maintenance requisition to notify the maintenance department. These manual processes that happen regularly within machining factories can be automated on networked machines which quickly improves both the accuracy and the speed of the process. Finally, in collecting the parts count and machine status information and combining it with quality reports, we can understand the operational efficiency per machine and identify production issues.
Although the low hanging fruit is simply collecting and reporting data that is manually being complied today, it is not the greatest benefit to most organizations and certainly not the endpoint. Instead it is the starting point which validates running copper to each machine and investing in infrastructure to support a connected factory. The greater benefits are realized after the data is being collected. For example, ERP systems are common place and allow employees to process business transactions in an auditable way. By connecting machines to ERP systems it provides visibility to inbound, outbound and in process inventory levels, demand vs. production rates and actual vs. quoted cost. With this high level of visibility in both process and accounting more accurate information can be shared with customers, and better decisions can be made by all stakeholders.
As demonstrated above, it doesn’t require a leap of faith to realize the immediate benefits of connected machines. Common sense and planning will shift the production floor to a connected version of its former self that provides ample visibility to make more informed decisions. The next evolution beyond data gathering further leverages the data produced. The databases that store all of the historical data from the machines will be analyzed using any number of business intelligence (BI) software solutions. The very active market for BI software has incredibly versatile features such as natural language query, automated insights, trend analysis, outlier identification, dashboard, reporting, and so on. The data analysis will become a regular if not daily process on the shop floor as it is the most effective way to both generate and answer questions about the parts, process and business. The connected machines have closed the continuous improvement loop with incredible accuracy and speed.
One of the most ambitious views of a connected factory is the absence of people as machines speak directly to other machines to control the manufacturing process. Although this dystopian version of a connected factory has roots in reality the ultimate efficacy has yet to be proven. Instead, CMM machines or gauges that update CNC machines free operators to evaluate issues with the tooling which results in fewer scrap pieces and a more satisfying purpose for the operator. Cameras that track parts throughout the process and prevent running a tap without confirming the drill operation is complete reduce tedious rework and subsequent tool repair. A fork lift operator can plan the best route based on actual parts accumulation fed directly to the vehicle thereby reducing the miles she must drive. When machines are connected all stakeholders benefit, including shop floor team members.
As machines are connected to sate the flow of data for factory processes we can then start integrating statistical analytics and really elevate the value in connected machines. Techniques long used in analyzing financial markets and weather systems are adapted and used to quantify the mechanical conditions in a machine and predict mechanical failures. Parts quality indicators can be measured during machining and the statistical probability of good vs a bad part instantly actioned upon. Separated by only one degrees of complexity from statistical analysis is machine learning which when employed can predict a failed electrical or mechanical component, accurately predict why a machine is down, and ultimately learn the best control algorithm for producing the most accurate part in the quickest manner. Importantly, artificial intelligence isn’t just science fiction. All of these pieces of a connected factory exist and are deployed today. The technology and skill set has just reached a point where it is accessible en masse.
Connected machines will invariably change the way products are manufactured. Understandably the investment in a connected factory needs to be justified and carefully navigated; however, you don’t need to look past the smart phone you carry to see the importance of a connected factory.