Last week, executives from industry powerhouses around the world gathered to hear what Siemens, Ford Motor Co. and GE had to say about staying competitive in today's market. It was well worth the trip.
Over the two-day series of presentations at the PROFINET Executive Leadership Event, representatives from the companies outlined three critical factors determining manufacturers' success in today's market: productivity, connectivity and standardization.
To address these issues, the presenters settled on one key tool: innovative technology. And in this environment, that meant PROFINET.
PROFINET -- an industrial Ethernet networking system that has been widely adopted to help manufacturers develop factory and process automation -- is the standard Ethernet protocol adopted by these companies to help them meet these efficiency goals.
As Robert Bartels, a communications consultant at Siemens, said, one of the primary objectives of this event was "to shine a light on how U.S. manufacturers are connecting innovation to productivity." More specifically, he added that the goal was to highlight how "for more and more companies, the technology driving innovation is PROFINET."
Manufacturers are in a push now to expand globally. However, in the cash-rich / low-employment state post-recession U.S. corporations find themselves in today, manufacturers are being asked to stretch assets further than ever, said Raj Batra, president of Industry Automations at Siemens. Expansion now therefore often means increasing production output without increasing production infrastructure. In other words, manufacturers must focus on operational efficiency.
"Companies, quite frankly, have to do more with fewer people," said Batra. "And there comes the productivity imperative... Now it's not about cutting costs or dealing with fractured supply chains, it's about increasing productivity in operations."
Given this more-with-less theme, it's not surprising that resources for such productivity boosts are limited. So manufacturers are now looking for cost-effective, efficient ways to update plant operations to get this extra productivity.
Bernie Anger, general manager of Control and Communication systems at GE Intelligent Platforms highlighted this point: "The reality is, the automation infrastructures are, mainly in this country and in Europe, fairly old," he said. "It is impossible to compete against emerging economies with an infrastructure that is completely outdated."
To overcome this challenge, he said companies need to take a look at their resources and make the smartest move to increase efficiency. For many, he said, "updating controls to make plants more productive is a lot more manageable [than updating the entire infrastructure]."
This is where PROFINET comes in.
Integrating these controls into a single network like PROFINET enables users to maximize control productivity from the "shop floor to the top floor," said Batra.
The result is an entirely new, efficient system. Upgraded to an enterprise system, with little hardware added, manufacturers are able to meet these new productivity demands without increasing investment in infrastructure, he said.
As an example, Anger added, "When we run a single wire down the network, it takes us three microseconds to determine that there is a network breakage. Which means we can guarantee transfer all the time. The technology enables that kind of stuff. It's fast and it's incredibly robust."
"The reason I'm bringing this up," he explained, "is because if we're not thinking about how our stuff connects to the rest of the world, if we don't think about our systems as part of a vastly connected world, we're probably not going to be competitive."
The most important question to ask yourself now, he says, is: "If you really want to be part of an ecosystem of 75 billion machines, what kind of restructuring are you going to put in place that make sure the connections between those machines can be generated in an automatic way?"
Industrial Ethernet, he said, is the only practical answer. "If you are in automation and you are not adopting Ethernet," he said, you can't be competitive. "It's that simple. The world is connecting and if you are playing any different card, I think you are going to be in trouble."
Mike Bastian, global controls engineer manager at Ford, listed standardization as the most critical element for improving efficiency and productivity.
"This has really been preached to us by John Flemming, who is our group vice president for manufacturing." His mantra, said Bastian, is "I want things standard. I want so much standardization that it goes down to the lead in the pencil that signs off the drawing."
This is not an easy thing to pull off in operations, however.
"Trying to drive standardization into the area of controls is very difficult to do," said Bastian. "We buy equipment from ... a lot of different supplies of machine assembly systems and getting them standard in how they execute is a challenge."
Though difficult, this standardization process is a critical necessity for Ford's expansion, he says.
"Right now in Powertrain we are branching out into China and we're branching out into India and Brazil. If we have strong standardization, we have the ability to replicate those systems over and over again. So standardization is directly connected to global expansion."
By standardizing operations with systems like PROFINET and working with the 150 vendors who currently do as well, he said, you get "operational efficiency, eventual reduction in engineering resources, and quicker product-to-market. It's an enabler for continuous improvement."