'You are going to have to move fast': 4 fine lines from DMDII's Smart Factory World Symposium

Pace of transformation demands swift but thoughtful action, industry leaders say at digital manufacturing event

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

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At the close of 2006, the introduction of the iPhone was still some six months away, and only 3.6% of recent mobile phone buyers in the United States said they had purchased a smartphone. (This according to market researcher Telephia, as reported by IntoMobile.com in December 2006.)

Today we're on the sixth generation of iPhones, and 79% of U.S. mobile phone users age 13 and older report owning a smartphone.

And yet many factories across the country are still relying on the same unconnected machines and paper-based, manual-labor-intensive data collection systems to keep their operations running. Or, in an increasingly common scenario, they have a few connected machines generating reams of data that they can't make sense of because they don't have the analytical resources or because their "smart" machines don't communicate with unconnected legacy equipment.

DMDII

Chicago's DMDII played host to the second annual Smart Factory World Symposium


That's a disconnect that has to change if individual companies look to remain competitive, panelists at the Digital Manufacturing & Design Innovation Institute's second annual Smart Factory World Symposium said in Chicago on Thursday.

"You are going to have to move fast," said David Brousell, global VP of research and editorial director for the Manufacturing Leadership Community at market researcher and consultancy Frost & Sullivan. The third industrial revolution that began in the 1960s with enhanced automation is giving way to Industrie 4.0, Brousell stated, with mass digitalization offering the promise of enabling machines to monitor their own performance and schedule their own maintenance. And it will be too costly for manufacturers not to be nimble and adapt to an unprecedented pace of change, he suggested.

"We will not have 25 years to get on board with M(anufacturing) 4.0," Brousell said.

Kimberley Hagerty, Lean transformation manager at jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney, knows the challenges of transforming facilities into "smart" factories first-hand. "I have 20-year-old machines that give very little data from an output data perspective and new machines that give more data than you could know what to do with," she said. "I need a solution that connects with both." And beyond the technological barriers facing an industrial sector challenged to keep pace in a rapidly changing global marketplace, cultural hurdles to technology adoption are real and persistent, Hagerty indicated.

For many workers, including both factor-floor workers who have decades worth of institutional knowledge and may fear that their jobs will be replaced and company managers concerned about major capital outlays, "Technology is scary," Hagerty said.

"We've got scary technology moving at a very fast pace in an industry that may or may not be ready for it but that desperately needs it," she said. "We need to understand that we're all in this together."

The idea of a rising tide lifting all boats, at least from the perspective of digitizing and thereby transforming manufacturing in the U.S., is at the heart of Chicago's DMDII and the seven other federally supported advanced manufacturing institutes across the country. Thursday's symposium brought together leaders from industry and academia to discuss their work in areas that reflect DMDII's mission of encouraging adoption of digital manufacturing and design technologies, connecting companies tackling these challenges, and supporting development of tomorrow's manufacturing workforce.

Bob Luthy, continuous improvement manager at valve manufacturer Richards Industries, shared the workforce challenges his company encountered during an implementation of a new software system, the Smart Factory Starter Kit from symposium sponsor FORCAM. Richards Industries learned quickly that it had to make clear that "participation is not voluntary," Luthy said. With such an implementation, it's critical to communicate more than you probably think is necessary and listen to your plant teams' feedback, but workers need to understand that at the end of the day, old protocols will no longer suffice, he said.

"We had one operator who went to management and said, 'Are you giving me an ultimatum?' "Luthy recounted. The answer was yes. "You need to put your foot down when it needs to be put down," he said.

Factory-floor buy-in, Luthy added, comes from sharing success stories. "Make sure they see the benefit of the changes," he said. And whether progress is measured in increased machine availability, increased production, a reduction in the number of safety incidents or some other measure, "show them where you've gained ground."

The good news is that manufacturing technologies are advancing to the point of becoming less costly (especially for machine health sensors) and more user-friendly. The mobile-device revolution that has transformed how consumers communicate and access information is transforming how plant workers share data and monitor machine health. Moreover, today's tools are emphasizing visibility into the most usable data plants need – emphasizing quality versus quantity.

"You can get bogged down in big data," Luthy said. "That's why we're trying to migrate from big data down to smart data" via intuitive dashboards that let personnel see which machines are up and running, who's working where, and where unplanned downtime has occurred in the past week – all in the name of optimizing resources.

And that kind of smarter planning is key, Hagerty said. "I don't want an operator telling me when there's a problem," she said. "I don't want him telling me when he fixed a machine." All of that should be automatically fed, she said, allowing a facility to focus on efficiently ramping up production to meet growing demands rather than on putting out figurative fires on a daily basis. "All I want an operator to do is ensure compliance to the process he managed," said Hagerty.

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