Keith Nosbusch, chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation (IW 500/165), has officially caught the high-tech buzz.
In his speech kicking off Automation Fair last month, he described what has become a familiar vision of manufacturing's slick, connected, autonomous future.
In this case, Nosbusch outlined a system – dubbed the Connected Enterprise – that mixes mobility, big data and analytics with automation to create "a more productive and sustainable world… with a higher standard of living and quality of life."
Essentially, it combines all of the technologies du jour – smart, interconnected devices, advanced analytics software, remote monitoring, control systems and the like – into a coherent web of real-time information about plants and people and parts. A kind of industrial Internet of Things.
And according to Nosbusch, it will soon be the standard for 21st century manufacturing.
That may sound like the usual sci-fi industrial futurism that tech companies like Rockwell like to hype. But in Rockwell's case, it's not hype. Nor is it science fiction. It's already a piece of day-to-day business.
Over the past eight years, Rockwell has been quietly deploying this Connected Enterprise throughout its own manufacturing landscape and has used it to drive a complete global transformation.
Part of that effort has included expanding the company's manufacturing capabilities from a handful of U.S. plants back in 2005 to a global network of shops and facilities stretching from Milwaukee to Shanghai today.
Doing so has meant trusting technicians in remote, emerging markets to build some of the most advanced automation equipment in the world, using some of the most advanced manufacturing equipment in the world, and without the resources or experience of Rockwell's U.S. crew. Which is problematic, to say the least.
Except that Rockwell simplified the process by taking the whole global system online. It uses its internal networks and software to gather information on those machines and their operation, and centralizes it with a strategic team of experts back in the U.S.
The result is the first active example of the Connected Enterprise. With it, those controllers in Milwaukee or Cleveland can watch every factory, every product line and every process across the globe. They can watch every machine and monitor every part on its course from suppliers to the customer. They can measure the efficiency of every machine and every operator, the quality of every part, the turn of every screw (literally).
Eight years into the project – still two years and two plants shy of completion – this system has helped drive a 98% on-time delivery rate for the company's 387,000 different products while increasing company revenue by about $2 billion. At the same time, it has brought new jobs and opportunities to emerging economies around the world.
Together, that is pretty much exactly what Nosbusch promises to bring the world with the Connected Enterprise: a better business in a better world.
Last month, IndustryWeek had the opportunity to sit down with Nosbusch to dig into this vision a little deeper and see what it all means for the future of manufacturing. And the world.
Q&A: The Connected Manufacturer
Q: The Connected Enterprise seems to be an extension of the Internet of Things, which has gained a lot of traction this year, especially in the consumer market. But what is it doing for manufacturing, exactly?
A: What it is doing for manufacturing is allowing the people who take advantage of technology to continue to remain competitive and to improve the productivity of their operations.
Today, it's clear that you have to do more than just automate – it's not just a matter of automating production processes and having your machines run faster and producing more. Now you have to find ways to integrate the information and the data that comes from these machines and from the process lines so you can make better, faster decisions.
The more you can learn about what is going on in the environment, the better you are at making those decisions.
Whether it's on the plant floor or what's happening in your customer base and how that's going to come back and impact the plant; whether it's your suppliers and what they need to do to be responsive; whether it's about how to improve the asset utilization or how to reduce the risk, we have to find additional ways to create that value for our customers.
I think that the integration of controls and information, or the Connected Enterprise, allows for a wider set of collaboration to occur that really allows customers to be more productive.
Q: To what end? I mean, information is good, automation is good, and technology is good. But what is the real value of bringing them together?
A: At the end of the day it's about driving productivity. Otherwise, why invest in it? There's got to be some end game.
I think if you start at the higher level, it's about global competitiveness. Automation has done that in many industries for many years. But I think we need to integrate that control and information now to take productivity to the next level, which enables a stable competitive differentiation.
If you don't do that, if you just continue doing everything the same way, you become obsolete and irrelevant. And that's not a good position to be in. Someone else will take over for you.
For us, I think what we notice is we can continue to increase the output with the same number of machines or equipment or people, so we're able to drive productivity internally. Plus, we're able to have higher-quality products because of the information and the consistency we are approaching these systems with.
The system makes it easier to utilize best practices around the company and share best practices. We have a very strong continuous improvement culture among the whole company, particularly in operations. And I think these tools allow us to do our jobs better.
From Science Fiction to the Plant Floor
Q: This seems like a radical leap, though. The connections you're talking about – and the ones you already have deployed in your plants – were literally science fiction just a few decades ago. Bringing it into the industrial world now is an impressive step.
A: This is just the evolution of technology.
When these things couldn't be done, it was science fiction; it was people thinking gee-whiz thoughts.
But now, I think technology has evolved to where it has become not just possible but practical.
I think we're seeing the continued evolution of technology to where it has a much wider application and a bigger footprint than it's ever had, and therefore it is impacting more industries, more applications. And that's becoming a big driver here.
Q: You talk a lot about the wider impact of high-tech manufacturing and the Connected Enterprise – about it actually improving the quality of life even outside the plant. What is the connection between productivity and happiness?
A: As I see it, if we can improve productivity, we can improve the standard of living.
Manufacturing is an important contributor to the creation of wealth, as you know. Making things is important.
We think if we can make companies more productive, more sustainable, then we improve the standard of living and we improve the standard of life.
We think that's a good thing to do, quite frankly. It has universal appeal.
Q: But the technology itself – what do advanced manufacturing technologies offer in terms of a better world?
A: Well, broadly speaking, it makes plants safer. It makes companies better stewards of the environment because they can improve their reporting, their monitoring of what's happening. It helps them reduce their energy consumption and reduce waste in manufacturing. These are all good things.
If you want to be altruistic, it is about the environment and sustainability. If you want to be capitalistic, it's about being more productive. Both of those are good things.
In the end, hopefully you can have a vibrant industry and vibrant manufacturing. And that means you create more jobs, you create better economies and therefore people have sustainable jobs and sustainable wages.
Then people can decide what they want to do with that. Governments will weigh in. But at least we're looking at how to make a bigger pie. And that's good for everyone.