Preparing the Troops for the Coming Revolution

Manufacturers wishing to capitalize on the revolution will require a new level of knowledge, aptitude and disciplines in four key areas.

Take heed—there’s a revolution in the offing, and we had best be prepared. No, I haven’t gone completely off my rocker. No, I haven’t been watching too many reruns of Doomsday Preppers on National Geographic. The revolution of which I speak will take place in industry, and it will change everything. The truth is we are entering the fourth industrial revolution, and I have seen its effects first-hand. 

In an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) world, all our manufacturing equipment will be networked together, gathering reams of real-time data that will be used to operate entire production systems, often with little or no human interaction. Already today, cutting-edge manufacturers employ the latest in IIoT technology. Sensor-laden robots that gather countless data about their own performance and prior downtime incidents and then use that data to predict their own future component failures. They then order their own replacement parts before a failure ever occurs. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) retrieve raw inventory, deliver it to robots that in turn place the raw material into machining centers and later retrieve machined parts and hand them to the AGVs, which deliver them to the next manufacturing operation. Sensors, computers and networks gather data about non-conforming production parts and use the data to suggest changes to the manufacturing process to improve first-pass yield.

Yes, the fourth industrial revolution is here. Manufacturers wishing to capitalize on the revolution will require a new level of knowledge, aptitude and disciplines in four key areas. Is your team ready?

Understanding throughput: The ability to understand a basic throughput equation, and how throughput is affected by machine speed, setup time, white time between operations, first pass yield and the like is fundamental to succeeding in a cyber-physical plant. 

Jacks of all trades: Gone are the days of equipment specialists—take for instance a team member who knows everything there is to know about a turning center but little else. The lines between departments become increasingly grey as information and manufacturing technology connect and integrate them. The manufacturing operation of the future requires team members that can work fluidly across myriad industrial equipment and technology.

Networking and control systems: Manufacturing technology will evolve relatively quickly to where every device has its own IP address. This will create what has been called a “hyper-connected Smart System of Systems” where endless streams of data are collected. A working understanding of this interconnectivity will be necessary. What’s more, as these interconnected systems will comprise some of the most coveted of a manufacturer’s intellectual property and essentially provide a road-map for its entire manufacturing process, a team member’s understanding of his or her role in maintaining IT security will be paramount.

Inform-Actionable Data: I read a statistic not long ago that states 90 percent of the data that exists on the earth today has been created in the last two years. Given this reality, the challenge of the manufacturer will not be a lack of data, but too much of it. Collecting, scrubbing, discerning and analyzing this information will be fundamental to our ability to improve performance and process. Thus, industrial maintenance, factory automation, IT and accounting will no longer be individual members of different departments or teams, but will become members of the same team whose charter is to drive enterprise-wide performance improvements using the tools now afforded them by the advent of cyber-physical systems.

The IIoT, while equal parts exciting and scary, has already begun. During my visits in the last year to advanced manufacturers across the globe, I have seen technology at work that has blown me away: entire plants comprising hundreds of thousands of square feet and producing production parts 24/7 while employing a dozen or so people. What’s even more amazing than the technology is the advanced manufacturing, technology and data management skills held by the individuals employed. Is your team ready?