Is Data the New King of Manufacturing Technology?

16982400_sThere’s an old saying, “The tail wags the dog.” It refers to any situation where a secondary offshoot of the main operation ends up taking control. Broadly, it can mean a shifting of the power base: the servant becomes the master. I think we may be looking at exactly this scenario in the world of manufacturing technology.

A major disruption is underway, and it’s all about the data. Or to be more accurate, it’s about what that data can tell decision-makers about quality, reliability, production processes, supply chains, materials, product design, customer demand—virtually everything a manufacturer cares about!

The ramifications will reach all the way from the far corner of the remotest shop floor to the corner office.

It’s Been a Long Road Getting to this Point

Originally, manufacturing data was merely a by-product of basic shop floor automation. Since the 1980s or so, shop floor data has been managed by Data Historian applications that capture key metrics from production equipment and processes at regular intervals, time-stamp them, and send them to an archive. Until recently, this kind of data was used primarily by specialists such as process engineers. Data was the “tail,” if you will.

How things have changed! Once management got a taste of Business Intelligence tools in the 1990s and early 2000s (and more recently analytics), they have wanted more, especially from manufacturing. “Why can’t I have more insights into manufacturing processes?” “Why can’t I relate our suppliers to quality?” “Why do we have a fortune tied up in materials?” “Why does it take a month to isolate a problem?”

Management is hungry for information about what’s going on in their operations, and the traditional Data Historian vendors are struggling to keep up with this demand.

A New Generation of Data Vendors

This need for meaningful data has spawned a new generation of software that is starting from big data “at the edge,” but is aiming for even bigger things.

Vendors in big data analytics for manufacturing are many, ranging from small start-ups to more traditional brick and mortar companies that see data as the real drivers of business. They are using the Cloud and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to create a new business ecosystem for manufacturing—one that is built on and profits from data, almost as much as from products themselves.

Based on open source software, these new data platforms are designed for an IIoT world. They can capture data from any sensor, equipment, mobile phone or any smart device and send it to the Cloud where it can be aggregated and analyzed. They can use both structured and unstructured data. They come with developer’s tools for creating applications, and communications tools for linking to anything. Analytics can be applied to mine the data, search for problems and opportunities, explore options, and so on.

Theoretically, in this new data ecosystem, it doesn’t necessarily matter what equipment is underlying it. What matters is moving materials, buying and selling them, adjusting to market demand.

Workers are data points as well, at least from a resource point of view. We can envision a virtual team, linked by their tablets and the IIoT, redesigning products and redirecting manufacturing resources on the fly. Where those people are located physically would be irrelevant.

Here Comes the Disruption

This new data ecosystem promises to be disruptive in many ways.

For one, it will allow manufacturers to treat their production-related assets almost as liquid assets. Big multinational companies want to redefine their business models to aggressively trade any asset at the globe scale. Once you have connected all your information systems, you can trade assets across divisions within a company, or even on the public trading floor.

For example, instead of materials in inventory sitting unused and tying up capital, those materials could become a dynamic, tradeable asset creating profits for the company. As long as you can get the right material to the right place at the right time that meets production requirements, why not?

This data ecosystem can also help drive mass customization and order-of-one manufacturing. With data extractable from everything, and cross referenced to all manufacturing processes, you can find more personalized ways of creating and delivering products—because you know more about your customer, and because you know more about how to manufacture fast.

The disruption in the IT world could go far beyond the impact on Data Historian vendors. Some people are asking a straightforward question: since these big data analytics solutions will be able to provide the means to see and control all the material assets of a company, shouldn’t they be the enterprise IT platform of choice? With the power of big data analytics, a manufacturer could mine vast amounts of production and customer data, identify markets, improve processes, and even drive product or process redesign. In other words, drive the business.

If information is power, and it certainly is in today’s global marketplace, then the center of gravity in manufacturing IT may well be shifting to the big data analytics players. What was once an offshoot of simple programmable machines could now be poised to become the enterprise platform of the future! The tail is about to start wagging the dog.


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