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Laying the Groundwork for Factories of the Future

Mark Shortt
Editorial Director
Design-2-Part Magazine

A collaborative team of IT experts and manufacturing leaders is hard at work building the prototype for a cloud-based, shared platform intended to give all U.S. manufacturers, including cash-strapped small- and medium-sized companies, the opportunity to employ intelligent systems that enable agile response to consumer demand and faster manufacturing of new products.

The days of not knowing what's happening on the shop floor, or your supplier's, when you're away from the plant are dwindling. Manufacturing today is at the intersection of a number of trends—the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, and mobile technologies—that are enabling plant personnel to get the information they need to act quickly on everything from urgent production alerts to notifications and reminders, regardless of location. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Add big data analytics (BDA) to the mix and, suddenly, engineers and plant managers have real time access to a wider variety of relevant data than they've ever had access to before, let alone outside the plant.

According to a recent release from IDC Manufacturing Insights (www.idc-mi.com), a global research and consulting services firm, big data and analytics are garnering plenty of attention from leading manufacturers. While the promise of better, faster, data-driven decision making has elevated BDA technology to the top of executive agendas, "the volume and variety of data being captured is growing at astonishing rates," the company says in the release. IDC Manufacturing Insights recently released a report, Business Strategy: Making Progress with Big Data and Analytics in Manufacturing (Doc. #MI249407), that examines the current application of big data analytics across manufacturing segments.

According to IDC Manufacturing Insights, BDA will continue to be "one of the top investment priorities for manufacturing organizations of all sizes for the foreseeable future." The intersection of BDA with other "3rd platform" technologies, such as cloud computing, mobile applications, social media, and other new collaborative tools, is said to be creating new opportunities for manufacturers to improve their productivity, speed, quality, innovation, and resiliency. "In operations, the rise of BDA-driven manufacturing intelligence ultimately supports the factory of the future," according to the release. "As manufacturers build the systems for capturing the right combinations of structured and unstructured data and apply analytics tools to move the needle in real time, the results of BDA investments will be seen across the value chains."

As these trends converge, a group of technology and manufacturing heavyweights within the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition (SMLC) is working quietly behind the scenes to build a cloud-based, open-architecture platform, known as the Smart Manufacturing (SM) Platform, which is expected to give manufacturers of all sizes—small, medium, and large—affordable access to advanced modeling, simulation, and sensor-based data analytics capabilities. Through the platform, analogous to the smartphone and application ("apps") store platforms offered by Apple and Google, manufacturers will have the ability to implement smart manufacturing systems that integrate data-driven manufacturing intelligence in real time across an entire factory and supply chain, according to SMLC. The aim is to empower manufacturing decision makers with the information they need to respond more quickly to consumer demand, reduce time to market, and increase productivity while minimizing the use of materials and energy.

The SM Platform is similar to the Apple and Google platforms, according to SMLC, in that it provides a standardized architecture that facilitates fast, low cost development of compatible apps by numerous third parties, while maintaining consistency and security for individual users and the basic operating system. But it reportedly differs from a smartphone platform in that it addresses data management, modeling, and key performance metrics as apps that can be assembled into a workflow to provide information for management decisions to be made in real time.


Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition, Inc.

By enabling manufacturing in which "all information is available when it is needed, where it is needed, and in the form it is most useful," smart manufacturing is said to enable the "infusion and integration of network-based data and information throughout the lifecycle of design, engineering, planning, and production."

"Our definition is that it's essentially networked and information-rich manufacturing," said John Bernaden, director of external communications at Rockwell Automation and vice chairman of the Smart Manufacturing Coalition, Inc., in a phone interview. "So, we at Rockwell call that the 'connected enterprise.' Generically, industry is looking at this as an IT-connected factory and supply chains."

According to Bernaden, the ability of manufacturers in the automotive, defense, and other discrete industries to convey digital information about complex products that they're developing on high-end engineering workstations, in a format that would allow them to better optimize their factory operations, has been an unmet need for quite some time. "The Department of Defense calls that concept the 'digital thread,'" he said. But whether a company is engaged in discrete manufacturing, process manufacturing (chemicals), or batch manufacturing (pharmaceuticals or food and beverages), the integration of information technology into its manufacturing workflow "is really what smart manufacturing is all about," he said.

The Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition (www.smartmanufacturingcoalition.org) is a non-profit membership organization comprising manufacturing practitioner, supplier, and technology companies; manufacturing consortia; universities; and federal agency and government laboratories. It seeks to bring together "talented experts to identify gaps in technology and the manufacturing landscape today." In addition to supporting collaborative research, development, and commercialization, SMLC is dedicated to supporting the manufacturing industry by pursuing a comprehensive technology that no one company can undertake on its own.

The coalition, which includes corporate members General Motors, Owens Corning, General Dynamics, Praxair, Rockwell Automation, General Electric, and Schneider Electric, among others, is committed to overcoming the barriers to the development and deployment of Smart Manufacturing (SM) systems through an implementation agenda for building the scaled, shared infrastructure known as the Smart Manufacturing Platform (SM Platform). Its work is being led by Jim Davis, a chemical engineer and IT expert who, while serving on the SMLC Technology Board of Directors, is vice provost-information technology/CTO at the University of California-Los Angeles. In a phone interview, Davis said that the idea of Smart Manufacturing has morphed through several phases over the years, starting with an original motivation that he said was more visionary.

"It actually started with the question 'What's the role of cyber infrastructure with respect to manufacturing operations?' Davis told D2P. "As we progressed with this and involved more and more industry, it became quite clear that industry really would like to have mechanisms by which they can drive down their IT costs, basically share risks, get access to software resources in a better way, deploy software resources better, have more experiences that are shared, and deal with data in broader ways, so there's a whole set of things that have progressed that way. Ultimately, that came together in a recommendation for what we call a Smart Manufacturing Platform, which was to put a number of these services [together] as IT services that embed non-proprietary or pre-proprietary kinds of capabilities in an architecture that actually does accomplish all of these different objectives."

The SM Platform is said to enable manufacturing companies of all sizes to gain easy, affordable access to modeling and analytical technologies that can be tailored to meet cross-industry business case objectives without having to retrofit existing systems. A 21st century smart manufacturing enterprise, according to SMLC, is "fully integrated, knowledge-enabled, and model rich," giving the company a level of visibility across its own enterprise and beyond, and radically improving the ability to inform decisions and drive action.

Internet of Things is Crucial to Smart Manufacturing

In the manufacturing arena, the extension of the Internet of Things (IoT) to networked machinery is critically important to building a foundation for the implementation of smart manufacturing. The emerging IoT has been capturing a great deal of attention for its rapid growth in bringing connectivity to previously unconnected devices, products, and equipment. In its report last December, "Forecast: The Internet of Things, Worldwide, 2013," Gartner, Inc., predicted that the IoT would reach an installed base of 26 billion units by the year 2020, a nearly 30-fold increase from the 0.9 billion units in 2009.

"We look at the Internet of Things as critical defining infrastructure that allows smart manufacturing to happen," said Davis. "I tend to think about it in layers: You have to have a network layer, and you have to have security around the networks. You have to have device integration and data integration, and the Internet of Things is actually going after, or tackling, those aspects. The Internet of Things tends to be very broad horizontally; it's cutting across Smart Manufacturing and Smart Grid and Smart Buildings and Smart Devices and wearables and smart health, and so forth. So from our perspective, you could literally think about Smart Manufacturing as a vertical that sits on top of Internet of Things kinds of layers. But we're fundamentally trying to work up from the data and device integration into actionable use of the data in a manufacturing setting."


Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition, Inc

A Platform that's Open, Accessible, and Affordable

When asked what characteristics the shared infrastructure needs to have, Bernaden said "The first word that we use over and over again is 'open.' It has to be an open platform. All of these industrial sectors are actually technology laggards when it comes to IT because there's been a propensity to use custom, proprietary types of information technologies to automate or operate their plants and factories. So the openness has three big pillars or legs to it that are really important. First of all, cost effectiveness. Any time you start using things [that are] custom or proprietary, that has a lot of cost to it, whether it's custom development or all the way at the other end, custom training."

The second leg of the platform, Bernaden said, is the ability to use not only the best hardware, but also the "latest and greatest software strategies and ideas" that are coming, primarily, from the commercial world. At a technology conference in Texas earlier this year, Bernaden put the word out that manufacturing could be the next place where tech-savvy entrepreneurs could look to build a very lucrative venture.

"When I was talking to the people, I said, 'You know, you develop a lot of cool apps for the Android platform for 99 cents that I buy. But if you could develop a cool app like that in an industrial app store, which is essentially what our Smart Manufacturing group is going to stand up, you could sell it for $999, or maybe even $99,000, and make a lot more money selling apps to industry than you ever thought you could make selling apps to people. And so that's kind of the vision that we have, is that we need to get young people to think it's cool to get into manufacturing, to develop apps, to bring all of this hardware and software that we all see in our daily lives in the consumer world. None of that's in the factory, to speak of."

The third and most important leg of the open platform, Bernaden said, is the ability to use a robust, standard cyber security strategy that is less expensive and can be implemented much more quickly than custom, proprietary approaches that can leave manufacturing companies "one step behind the bad guys." Although no system is completely impenetrable or foolproof, he said that if manufacturing companies are able to standardize on a "best, off-the-shelf firewall and security strategy," such as those that are used in banking, healthcare, and retail, they will have a better chance of protecting their information.

One of the biggest drivers in developing the Smart Manufacturing Platform, Davis said, is to reduce the cost of IT infrastructure when deploying smart systems. The SMLC has set a goal to cut that cost in half with what he called "pre-proprietary infrastructure." Another goal is to make technology more accessible to companies that actually don't have technology, or don't have the resources to engage or begin to interface with these sorts of technologies. Davis said that the platform also needs to provide capabilities that small, medium, and large companies don't easily have access to—in particular, Big Data analytics and high-performance computational resources—because it's hard for individual companies to build out their own infrastructures.

"We are trying to bring software into a form that's much more accessible, and so one of the services is around what we call 'Workflow as a Service,'" he said. "It allows a user to assemble different software packages, whether they exist as a direct application or as a vendor service, and put those together into a workflow that actually can be put into a useful form more easily than by having to do that on a plant-by-plant or factory-by-factory basis. And by building this platform out, it gives people a point of entry at the level of the technology they might be using. It allows them to try things out without having to make major investments.

Significant Barriers to Adoption

Davis sees some formidable "market- and business-related" obstacles to moving smart manufacturing forward. "There's the question of a shared platform, which is going to go against market incentives around platform providers that actually are trying very hard to drive customers to buy their platform on as exclusive a basis as possible," he said. "Yet, what we're really working on is 'how does a manufacturer bring these together where necessary?' That kind of market driver is particularly important.

"Another big area is the security side of this, where we're ultimately talking about cyber security, and whenever one talks about sharing, you have to think about security. We do, in fact, argue, though, that when companies start bringing different vendors together, those interfaces become points of insecurity, so you have to look at security, one way or the other. It's a very important element."

Davis stressed the importance of a full complement of secure practices, which, he said, provide greater security than "one-offs." "What we're really talking about is to provide a means where well-practiced security is implemented," he said. "There are resources with which to keep that security up to date as different ways go forward. It can complement the security at different factories going forward, and we have well-established ways with which to interface. By taking security on in that way, we argue it's far better than letting the security be done on a company-by-company basis, trying to interface with different vendors, and then trying to stitch different vendors together with different systems throughout a factory. So we are arguing on the security side that you can do this in a more concentrated, concerted, systematic manner than one-offs. Many one-offs will be less secure, in other words."

One of the obstacles to faster adoption of smart manufacturing in North America, Bernaden said, is the sizeable gap that exists between the smart manufacturing capabilities of what he called "the big Tier One corporations," like General Motors, General Dynamics, and General Electric—all of whom are members of the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition—and the far more numerous, small- and medium-size manufacturers that lack the purchasing power of the larger companies. He noted that a recent study found that the ability of North American small- to medium-size manufacturers to "really move into this new age and be connected to either the rest of their suppliers or their upstream customer—if that's a Tier One, a General Motors, for example—is very handicapped because they don't have a lot of installed base. Our hope is that this platform will help them to overcome some of those shortcomings.

"If you're a small- to medium-size guy in North America, when you're offered the option to buy any type of machine, robot, or automation, typically, the sales guy walks in and offers you two different versions," he said. "There's the smart version of that machine, which basically has, literally, an Ethernet port, so that you can take an Ethernet cable, or some type of network cable, and just plug it in, and that machine's plug-and-play. But that costs 10 to 20 percent more than the 'dumb' machine that doesn't have any connectability.

Higher Skill Sets in Demand

How does smart manufacturing change the skill sets required of manufacturing personnel? Davis said that with its emphasis on simulation, modeling, and data analytics, smart manufacturing increases the demand for people who are well versed in the use of data and what data can do, and in the systems that allow one to manage data. "We are talking about people who are well versed in systems—computational and data systems that can interface with physical systems, and do so in a way that's much tighter integration. From a smart manufacturing standpoint, we're beyond, if you will, control and automation, and we're working much, much more on 'how do you work with these systems across heterogeneous kinds of situations with respect to the data, vendors, and so forth?' So this whole systems, data, information technology space is very, very important from an educational standpoint."

Test Beds on Track

To develop and build out the platform, the coalition put together a proposal to the Department of Energy, which ended up awarding SMLC a 2013 Clean Energy Manufacturing contract to begin developing the nation's first open, smart manufacturing technology platform for collaborative, industrial- networked information applications.

"It's about a $10 million project to develop the first prototypes of the platform, along with two test beds—one at a General Dynamics plant, and one at a Praxair plant—to flow real industrial data through the platform and build it out and test its robustness and applicability," Bernaden said. "We're a year into it. The Praxair test bed is probably the most mature. They actually are installing hardware and some advanced sensors, and they've basically taken a prototype database and run it through the platform. It's a three-year project and I would say we're right on schedule with the first year of milestones being met."

Although the Smart Manufacturing Platform is still in development, Davis said that there are early indications that a number of companies are experiencing success with the implementation of smart manufacturing systems. He pointed to a survey commissioned late last year by the American Society for Quality (ASQ), the ASQ 2014 Manufacturing Outlook survey, in which members of the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition participated. Although results were encouraging, he said they also clearly showed that Smart Manufacturing is still at an early stage of understanding and awareness.

"But there was a percentage of companies that had addressed and taken steps towards our definition of Smart Manufacturing," he said. "And they were showing significant product quality improvement benefits and significant performance benefits, which are the kinds of things that we've been advocating."

Results reportedly showed that only 13 percent of those surveyed said that they use smart manufacturing within their organization. But of those organizations that claimed to have implemented smart manufacturing, 82 percent said that they experienced increased efficiency, 49 percent reported that they incurred fewer product defects, and 45 percent indicated that they experienced increased customer satisfaction.

Benefits Expected in Phases

Bernaden expects the benefits of smart manufacturing to be realized over time, in what he identified as three phases. In the first phase, companies will reap greater productivity and cost effectiveness by operating a connected enterprise. "If you buy that smart machine, you can save money because you may not need a workforce that's monitoring your factory around the clock," he said. In phase two, which some of the larger companies have already reached, he said, information-rich factories will use advanced computer modeling and simulation strategies to capitalize on big data. "You'll not only get the low hanging fruit that you got with some of the cost effectiveness and productivity, but you get answers to how to improve your factory in ways that are sometimes even counter-intuitive."

Phase three is where Bernaden sees the greatest benefits of smart manufacturing coming to fruition, where new product innovations and "new ways of doing things," similar to what he's seen happening in the consumer space, will prevail in a manner that could turn industry on its head.

"I could have never imagined all the apps that young people have come up with to do cool things, and we think that when all these young people, with all of their great ideas and all the computer tools, start really feeling free to help us in manufacturing, the promise off all of that is going to be a paradigm shift. Everybody talks about paradigm shifts or quantum leaps, but manufacturing is ripe for it and we think that that's the third phase. And if you don't walk down that road to begin that journey, if you don't start buying the smart machine versus the dumb machine today, and you don't start plugging and playing them together, and doing a little modeling and simulation, you never get to the 'Big Shift' somewhere down the road.

"So it's a journey, but we're starting to say to [the bigger companies], and the small- to medium-sized folks, 'You've got to start down that journey and the way to start doing it is, every time a sales person comes in, he's probably going to sell you a smart motor or a dumb motor. Everything nowadays could have a microprocessor on it and a little Ethernet plug, and you may not even know how you're going to use that smart motor versus the dumb motor, but buy the smart one, because some day, some young engineer is going to come in and say, 'Wow, I'm glad you bought that because now I can plug my computer into it, and let me show you what I can do.'"

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