Smart Manufacturing is about Hardware: Yes or No?

Hardware and software work together for smart manufacturing

Hardware for Smart Manufacturing like AR glasses are amazing – and so is all the software behind them! Image (c)Dolgachov – Dreamstime

I’m beginning to think my focus on manufacturing software is too narrow: from machine monitoring to MES/MOM and scheduling, supply chain, quality, PLM, ERP and analytics across all production segments. Does that sound broad or narrow to you? As a long-time industry analyst and advisor, I strive for a broad view. However, I see that my current focus might not be broad enough.

What’s missing? Hardware. Smart Manufacturing is getting goosed into action by hardware – or things. (There is a spot in me that sinks when I write that!) Yes, the hardware matters. I’m continually amazed by the new and improved robots, 3D printers, virtual and augmented reality glasses, and all manner of industrial internet of things (IIoT)-enabled equipment and machines. Like other forms of automation, these ‘things’ can make production operations more reliable, faster, and less expensive.

Once connected to the Industrial Internet or IIoT, the possibilities for Smart Manufacturing or Industry 4.0 are vast. Finally the vision of one-off production, in local sites close to demand, may be coming true. This throws into question what a manufacturing company will look like, and opens up entirely new business opportunities.

I think that knowing they might walk around using VR glasses could attract some younger workers into manufacturing. Being able to 3D print customized replacement joints has already made some people I know able to walk with far more comfort. Ensuring that robots do the least ergonomic and dullest tasks already increases safety and workers’ health.

This new hardware is awesome! It’s become the face of Smart Manufacturing and Industry 4.0. And the face is no longer dirty or only focused on what the hands are doing.

So will I shift my focus to hardware from software? No. I’ll read up on the hardware, but the magic behind the hardware is the software. It works behind the scenes to will make all of this data from hardware things useful. And the software is just as amazing and interesting as the hardware. Maybe more so, just a lot harder to see.

Typically the goal is not just to automate, but to gain more information. Big data analytics are critical, but they don’t just happen by hooking up modern IIoT-enabled hardware to data lakes. There is MUCH more to it!

Just as robots are learning to collaborate with humans, software must collaborate with the hardware and other software too. There are layers of software required now to ensure that machines can talk to one another. Fortunately standards like OPC-UA and MTConnect are allowing machine data to move among systems with basic structure and meaning.

Even once the data is in a common standard, it’s not in context. This is the complicated business of taking multiple streams of cleansed data and viewing them as a set (for example, what product was being produced, by what equipment and people in what conditions, etc.) so that analysis can more deeply understand the conditions behind a pattern. For just a couple of examples: in discrete machine-driven industries, System Insights’ VIMANA and Enrich do that in the plant; and for complex product data, Siemens OMNEO does that.

Data security and encryption are also essential, from the automation layer all the way up. For those in automation, check out Bedrock Automation.  As IoT spreads intelligence, cybersecurity needs increase at every level. Security can include encryption in any IT system as well.

There are too many categories of software and companies in each one to mention them all… So that part has not changed. Suffice it to say that all of the traditional software elements are now joined by IIoT software. Even those with large stacks or platforms for IIoT such as GE Predix, Siemens MindSphere, PTC Thingworx, and Schneider Electric EcoStruxure, and Bosch IoT Platform ave partnerships with many other software companies. No doubt they will continue to build those networks, and not just of those leveraging their platform, but to ensure a complete stack.

As companies go after the benefits of amazing new hardware for production, it’s critical to ensure there is a software architecture to make use of all that new data. You’ll need software to capture it, cleanse it, put it in context, coordinate it, and turn data into information, and put it in forms so that it can be analyzed in big data platforms.

Delighted to know that the hardware is pushing the software to new heights – and depths- and agility. Also delighted that new hardware can make manufacturing look as cool as it is!



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