Tag Archives: Information Technology

Innovation is driven by technological advancements, but far too often, manufacturers across all industries are overly concerned with how to bring the cutting edge to their products as opposed to their processes. The Big Data movement, canonized the world over as the saving grace for the burgeoning deluge of computerized information, allows businesses to do astronomically more in regards to customer relations and demand forecasting than once thought possible – that is, these companies can create a friction-less environment in which they can consume data at nigh-negligible costs, and apply their findings with minimal oversight and spend, resulting in momentous value-add potential.

But without the proper IT architecture in place, this can only be a pipe dream for businesses unwilling to bump up internal technological resources directly connected to production, be it the process or the product. Applications designed to monitor and control lean manufacturing initiatives can enhance the industries that bring them aboard, so long as these applications in question put the horse back before the cart, so to speak. What process improvements can be made to data-intensive operations using objective-minded management?

process improvements
In manufacturing, measurement is everywhere, including data and process improvement.

Performance measurement
Believe it or not, metrics utilization isn’t just for the world of business – these days, the average individual uses a number of different “signals” to interact with the world around them, like how smartphone apps let hurried commuters know exactly what time public transportation pulls out of the station. In a sense, even low-tech devices like a car’s fuel gauges serve roughly the same purpose: conglomerating disparate information under a single, user-friendly visualization. In recent years, gas tank telemetry has evolved beyond simply stating fractions, but estimating how many miles a driver has left before refueling becomes a necessity. This is a much more actionable unit of measurement for this particular metric, as it assumes drivers won’t want to fill up unnecessarily as a means of saving money and time if it can be avoided without hindering functionality.

In a manufacturing plant, similar rules apply, but as industries grow more and more complex, production metrics continue to include more dimensions and incorporate larger volumes of data. However, the end results must be just as easy to understand and act on, perhaps even more so. Additionally, all manufacturers charting key performance indicators (KPIs) do so as these metrics relate to their own operations. Lean or Six Sigma only works so far as companies can identify their own shortcomings and apply these systems like antiseptic to a wound. According to a study by the faculty of manufacturing engineering at the Technical University of Malaysia, more often than not, KPIs “reflect the company’s mission, vision, objectives, and goal which are key imperatives to the company’s success,” especially when it comes to employee management. Any worthwhile application managing KPIs and alerting decision-makers as to vital data must therefore be as reliable as it is flexible to specific needs.

“Data from the end of a given process should inform operations at the very beginning.”

Process Improvements
Collecting and reporting on terabytes of data is one thing, but what can the right data management platform do to streamline tangible on-site workflow? Operational process improvements and efficiency can be gained through data management applications driven by lean manufacturing principles like kanban, or a system of inventory control where production information acts as a catalyst. The popular “pull, don’t push” paradigm used throughout manufacturing finds a home here as well. Data from the end of a given process should inform operations at the very beginning to promote efficient resource spend and temper production based on throughput potential. If a popular nightclub reaches capacity but the bouncer continues to allow guests entry, it creates an unsustainable and unsafe situation for everyone involved. However, if that same bouncer grants access based on how many guests leave, the venue can serve the most patrons without causing a commotion.

That said, as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology outlines, small discrepancies in different kanban-focused data management tools could actually stifle objective-based process improvements and detract from lean manufacturing practices. Certain lean manufacturing data management assets compartmentalize different actions in a given process and assign products within production as “carriers of information.” Returning to the nightclub analogy, if the bouncer has to occasionally go into the club and manually count occupants, this can create inefficiency and can convince people waiting in line for admission to seek out another place to spend their Friday night. But if that bouncer uses a counting device at the door, he or she can immediately respond to a happy party leaving as the impetus for allowing more people in. Similarly, manufacturers shouldn’t be “counting heads” so much as they should ensure their process improvements made to process management applications assign throughput data its proper role as a production instigator. In doing so, manufacturers avoid bottle-necked workflow and any resulting downtime, upgrading their efficiency through more intelligent datalogical deployments.

In manufacturing, virtualization helps companies by simplifying the management of IT and operational assets. Dealing with complex plant systems, tons of data, and tightly defined processes, manufacturers benefit from easier access to plant floor operations and control systems. Engineers can get the most out of technology systems by leveraging the convenience of virtualization. Sen. Amy Klobuchar told CNBC that manufacturing today is defined by advanced technological capability.

“The reality is that today’s manufacturing workers are as likely to operate robots as they are wrenches, and use math more than muscle – this isn’t your grandpa’s factory floor,” wrote Klobuchar.

Virtualization can improve IT efficiency, save time and reduce costs
Manufacturing Business Technology explained that the benefits of virtualization include hardware consolidation, less energy consumption, improved application load time, disaster recovery, and easier streamlining of processes. Because virtualization calls for hardware independence, it is much easier to manage software across a facility and implement changes. With individual terminals receiving information from one management operating system, the points of access are significantly reduced. Virtualization also enables companies to use servers to run multiple applications without conflict.

Consolidating hardware benefits manufacturers because IT and maintenance staff will spend less time moving from one terminal to the other, and they can spend more of their time focused on facility-wide technology concerns. Manufacturing Business Technology pointed out that virtual machines can extend the software lifecycle over 10 years. Additionally, because virtual terminals require much less energy than full platforms, virtualization results in energy savings for a plant.

Centralization of operational resources is easier with virtualization
Using virtualization, operators are able to access their workstations through a multitude of devices, noted Manufacturing Business Technology. Another main benefit to a virtualized environment is that critical hardware is kept out of harm’s way. Should something happen to a remote terminal, it can be easily replaced without having to rebuild software and load applications. It is important to mention that, using sophisticated virtualization configurations, operators can have the same functionality as if they were accessing the management operating system itself.

“Critical hardware is kept out of harm’s way.”

Another critical feature of virtualization is that it can make the streamlining of processes much easier. Since work applications and documents are centralized and rolled out to the individual terminals, this helps prevent data duplication, limit inconsistencies, and continually keeps operators and technicians on the same page with respect to new processes, or work protocols. Additionally, virtualization allows for better workflow management because an engineer can set up permissions that designate who can access which production process and when.

Disaster recovery is made easier through virtualization
Virtualization is also helpful as a disaster recovery plan, noted Manufacturing.net. Most manufacturers know that system failures are a real possibility. Problems with controls, execution systems, or automated equipment can bring production to a halt altogether. System failures increase downtime, which can significantly impact revenue negatively. As such, it is important to have a plan in place that both protects the systems that run the hardware, and recovers them should they suddenly fail. Unlike with traditional systems, virtualization is easier to manage because of the centralized aspect, and it also eliminates the need for reinstallation and configuration – should the worst happen. Since virtual machines are already configured, the hours spent reconfiguring a traditional system can be put to better use elsewhere.

Virtualization can help companies better manage IT assets.

Virtualization offers a high return on investment
Tony Baker, Product Manager at Rockwell Automation told Manufacturing Business Technology, virtualization will eventually represent at least half of all automated systems in a manufacturing environment.

“In the world of corporate IT, 65 percent of new applications this year will be deployed in a virtual environment,” wrote Baker. “I would say that 10 to 15 percent of automation applications are now being deployed in a virtual environment. That’s up from almost zero a year ago. Virtualization is gaining traction and I expect that half of all automation applications will leverage virtualization in the next 5 years.”

The benefits of virtualization are too many to ignore. In terms of return on investment, virtualization will help companies raise efficiency, lower IT expenses, protect their production assets, and streamline processes across a facility. The cost benefit of these efficiencies far outweighs the initial investment in virtual terminals and the miscellaneous expenses it will require.