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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

The Catalysts For Connected Manufacturing

December 15th, 2016 by Jeff Rowe

Cloud computing is helping more manufacturers become more agile and competitive, but it is by no means the only aspect of improving manufacturing practices. There are actually several technologies involved with making connected smart manufacturing a reality.

That’s just part of the findings of the 2016 State of Manufacturing study written by Plex Systems and based on survey responses from approximately 200 manufacturers.

Last year’s State of Manufacturing Technology report validated that the cloud is one of the primary catalysts for technology usage overall. Fundamentally, the cloud reduces the IT cost and personnel burden for core systems and administration, opening up resources for greater innovation and much needed focus on higher-value technology projects. The core capabilities inherent in modern cloud solutions—mobility, ease of integration, configurability, and the elimination of upgrade cycles— also make it easier and less expensive for manufacturers to connect their people, equipment, materials, suppliers, and customers.

Connected Manufacturing

This year’s survey discusses an emerging trend: connected manufacturing. Organizations are building on the connectivity of the cloud and leveraging integration that extends from mobile devices to plant floor equipment, customers to suppliers, and people to materials. These capabilities are providing a new application foundation for everything from agile process design to enterprise supply-chain management, innovation, and product quality.

Smart Engineering and Production 4.0 – Connected manufacturing in action

The intersection of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and the cloud creates a new opportunity for manufacturers to leverage big data as a strategic asset. Manufacturers were asked directly about their current use of data. Key findings of the study included:

  • 73 percent (up from 66 percent in 2015) said that cloud solutions had improved their level of insight into their businesses
  • 90 percent (up from 81 percent in 2015) noted improved mobile access to data
  • More than 65 percent of respondents cite the cloud as a key factor in improving connectivity and communications with customers, with 64 percent noting similar improvement with suppliers.

More than 40 percent claimed improved communication with transportation providers. As rich communication becomes simpler, more configurable and less expensive, organizations will gain access to even larger streams of data from across the supply and demand chain. Analytic applications that are becoming critical components of cloud ERP and CRM solutions can tap into those data streams to provide an even broader view for global enterprises. It is this combination of device connectivity, ubiquitous cloud computing, and open analytic applications that will keep big data’s evolution at the forefront of new opportunities for manufacturers in the future.

The Cloud Remains The Catalyst For Connected Manufacturing

The cloud continues to be the catalyst for connected manufacturing, as open integration and ubiquitous Internet access make it increasingly easy and cost efficient to leverage mobility, big data, and IIoT. What’s interesting is that in many cases, organizations did not set out with a transformational goal. Instead, pragmatic, short-term approaches using Internet and cloud-based solutions have formed a strategic backbone and foundation for more advanced applications.

While manufacturers are focused on clear next steps, such as connecting to their customers and suppliers, connecting the plant floor, or improving quality and traceability, the end result is an open and connective fabric that enables new business approaches with extensibility beyond initial expectations.

The cloud enables virtually limitless data collection, delivery, and scale, forming a fully connected manufacturing enterprise. The next steps are more deployment of sensors, connections, and continuous improvement of analytics, which will enable better quality capabilities, aid in more efficient equipment usage through deeper plant floor measurements, and deliver predictive maintenance for better uptime. Fortunately for manufacturers, this won’t require massive investment as incremental or departmental improvements will continue to contribute to better enterprise performance.

Connecting With IIoT

IIoT continues to be part of an organic trend for connected manufacturing and an unquestionable priority for organizations. Ninety eight percent of respondents noted that connectivity to systems, machines, suppliers, and customers is either somewhat or very valuable to their business today. Equipment and all forms of devices now include connectivity as a standard, and pervasive cloud solutions make it easy to not only capture data, but to also control, manage, and optimize equipment into agile processes. IIoT is also enabling big data approaches, even for smaller organizations, as the intersection of easy connectivity and embedded analytic applications allows plant floor and business users to tap data for insight, planning, and innovation.

Connected manufacturing isn’t just about machines and networks, much of it still revolves around people leveraging data for decisions, problem solving, and managing quality. The informed plant floor technician is fundamental to a high-performing organization. Historically, mobile devices on the plant floor were highly-tailored, ruggedized pieces of equipment. Hand-held scanners were often robust, fully functional personal computers—the “brick on a stick”—with price tags to match.

Consumer mobile devices are dramatically changing the game on the plant floor and across manufacturing organizations. Apple and Android-based smart phones are both cheap and reliable, and cloud applications are almost universally deployed on both platforms.

Seventy percent to 56 percent of manufactures report having deployed Apple and Android devices, respectively, representing nine percent to 24 percent year-over-year overall growth. Sixty-four percent report using consumer tablets specifically, and as we spoke with manufacturers about these deployments it was very clear that the relative low cost of consumer devices, along with the ubiquity of networking, is making experimentation with new devices a big part of their innovation efforts.

Don’t Forget The Human Factor

For the second consecutive year, manufacturers listed the shortage of skilled workers as the number one obstacle to company growth in the coming year (28 percent of respondents). Beyond the general statistics, manufacturers we’ve spoken to cite a number of challenges in recruitment. Manufacturing as a career has taken a multi-decade hit in North America. Both high school and college institutions have dramatically reduced the emphasis on skills education, often based on the cost of facilities and programs. At the same time, public perception of manufacturing careers has been tarnished by memories of recessions and layoffs, as well as an inaccurate perception that manufacturing is still dangerous, dirty, repetitive work. This is hardly the case anymore.

Not surprisingly, skills related to lean manufacturing topped the list with 38 percent of respondents making it their number one priority. Since the connected nature of the modern plant floor is becoming more commonplace, the number two priority for new hires is data analysis. From materials and equipment to customers and quality, connected manufacturing environments are enabling the capture of huge quantities of data—making turning that data into insight a cornerstone for leading organizations.

Not surprisingly, skills related to lean manufacturing topped the list with 38 percent of respondents making it their number one priority. Since the connected nature of the modern plant floor is becoming more commonplace, the number two priority for new hires is data analysis. From materials and equipment to customers and quality, connected manufacturing environments are enabling the capture of huge quantities of data—making turning that data into insight a cornerstone for leading organizations.

Looking Ahead At Connected Manufacturing

Connected manufacturing, fueled by cloud computing and IIoT, enables manufacturers to build ecosystems that include suppliers, partners, and customers to enhance end-product usage and performance. This year’s report highlights continued manufacturing focus on practical, pragmatic solutions for better plant floor automation, improved quality, and better connectivity to customers and suppliers.

By addressing challenges in a pragmatic way using cloud and IIoT technologies, manufacturers are also establishing the foundations for connected manufacturing, which is essential to their future success. Connected manufacturing is not possible without a cloud backbone to leverage the power of elastic cloud-scale computing to process big data and enable machine-to-machine learning and communication. The cloud backbone also eliminates IT friction by shifting the management and responsibility to the cloud services provider, enabling company technical resources to focus on high-value business process needs while also reducing the cost by using a shared tech infrastructure model. As a result, manufacturers can freely explore and leverage new technologies to better compete, lead, and innovate.

The cloud is the catalyst for innovation in manufacturing, and having a connected cloud ERP backbone enables manufacturers to more easily support IIoT, big data, mobility, and emerging technologies to enhance their operations and add to their bottom line. As manufacturing becomes more connected and expansive data is captured and shared, those companies ahead of the curve using the cloud are poised to separate themselves from the competition and lead the industry forward.

Plex Systems did a very thorough job with this study and presents the information in a manner that is concise, clear, and provides a good guide for “the writing on the wall” for manufacturers who want to compete and succeed in the future.

Late Breaking News:  After wondering for a couple of years when the announcement might be made, and not too surprisingly, Autodesk has finally pulled the plug on its Rhino plugin, T-Splines, a company it acquired in 2011. Two years ago Autodesk discontinued the SOLIDWORKS T-Splines plugin, tsElements. T-Splines has always been recognized for its unique method for generating organic, freeform shapes for solid modeling. I’m assuming that what has been known as T-Splines has now been woven into Autodesk products, such as Fusion 360, to a degree that as a plugin for competing products, its existence is no longer warranted. Well, at least Autodesk kept the T-Splines plugin afloat for five years before moving on.

Editor’s Note: As we look ahead, for the first issue of MCADCafe Weekly in 2017 we will take a look back at the most significant issues and things that affected the MCAD community this year, including software, hardware, mergers/acquisitions, and trends.

Have a safe and happy holiday and a terrific 2017!

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