Don't overthink your digital upgrade

Cloud solutions are enabling old and new technologies to work together seamlessly and increase standardization.

By Bob Argyle, Leading2Lean

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It’s the age-old conundrum that keeps plant managers up at night. Tossing and turning, they agonize: “Is it time for our company to upgrade to new technology? Or are our current systems good enough? What are our competitors doing with technology?”

Moving to new technology is no small decision. As plant managers know all too well, replacing systems is difficult, costly, time-consuming, disruptive, and risky – not to mention stressful. It doesn’t always start off this way, but once the transition process is underway, manufacturers feel the burden of disruption and downtime from installation and training and the grim reality of the learning curve. Plus, too many new systems never meet their intended objectives.

Even deciding where to begin replacing systems is challenging. Upgrading entire plants is extremely costly and is not realistic for many manufacturers. Production lines simply cannot go down because production = revenue. Managers are forced into choosing which systems to upgrade and which legacy systems to maintain.

Because of the risks outlined above, plant managers have had to build Rube Goldberg-like and tenuously connected systems patched together over years of operations. These systems rarely share data with each other, and even worse, they often do not provide the right real-time data to the right people at the right time. The result? Bad decisions, finger-pointing and running in place. Faced with a need to change, plant managers often see the safest path as additional Frankenstein-like fixes. The concerns about compatibility in such a predicament are more than valid; they reflect a true fear of modernization.

However, given how fast manufacturing technology is evolving, when even new hardware systems will be out of date in a year or two, standing still means falling behind every day. The last thing a manager wants to see is a plant floor glistening with one-year-old technology that pales in performance to the latest and greatest innovation. What is worse is when the new technology is not easy for line technicians to use. When it isn’t, they resort to manual workarounds (e.g., spreadsheets and whiteboards), defeating the purpose of the new technology.

So, what are plant managers to do?

It comes down to a few fundamental questions and a necessary change in mindset. For decades, plant managers have struggled with being tethered to legacy systems, given the large past investments in these, while also fearing the costs, risks, and compatibility issues that could come with integrating new technology.

I maintain that this situation is avoidable.

What if this “tradeoff” between old and new technology no longer existed? What if the pain points of sunk costs, expensive upgrades, and compatibility were no longer concerns? What if there were a way to bring old and new technology together in a way that optimized performance, standardization, and efficiency?

In two words: the cloud. Cloud software is revolutionizing how plant systems communicate and share data, regardless of how old or how new the hardware is. Cloud technology is the bridge to unifying a single plant or a network of plants, allowing multiple systems to communicate in the same language – providing manufacturers with the elusive common plant floor standard. Entire control systems on the plant floor that regulate equipment and monitor production metrics can capture and analyze data from diverse sources and share this valuable information across networks. The end result is increased standardization, which brings greater efficiency and an improved bottom line.

While some have questioned the security of the cloud, within the past decade, great improvements have been made to increase data protection. The cloud is as secure as other methods of data storage, if not more so, and continues to rapidly improve as providers learn about and respond to security threats. Cloud technology providers depend on their security measures for continued business, and to these companies, having impenetrable security walls is a top priority. After all, providers such as Amazon, Apple and Microsoft have seen their year-over-year double-digit growth continue to accelerate because they provide end users with best-in-class security. In the cloud, Yokoten principles are fundamental because any security abnormality that occurs is quickly shared among providers. That can’t happen with internally created plant systems.

Most important, cloud technology can meet a company’s existing technology where it is today and evolve with it over time. With the cloud, it’s less about questioning whether hardware will still be relevant in the next year, because cloud software will adapt and continue measuring everything that happens on the plant floor. As it does, there will be continuous improvement. Cloud technology gets better and stronger over time, and that helps enable continued improvement of plant maintenance, operations and production.

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