Photos: Plex Systems; Illustration: Bill Szilagyi
Plex Systems VP of development Jason Prater, left, and CTO Jerry Foster riff on the future of manufacturing technology.

Plex Geeks Dive Into Manufacturing Technology

Aug. 3, 2015
Plex Systems CTO Jerry Foster and VP of development Jason Prater discuss what they're at work on in the cloud and what they see for the future of manufacturing technology ... and why we won't all become robotic drones of death.

NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Jerry Foster and Jason Prater have worked together for so many years that whenever they team up — for a presentation, for a product pitch, even for just a conversation in a windowless conference room at the end of a long day in front of customers — they have an innate ability to play off each other and finish each other’s thoughts. They are a little like brothers, or the best friends who somehow landed in the same classroom every year from kindergarten through graduation.

Foster is the chief technology officer at Plex Systems, a Michigan software company that focuses on ERP, the cloud and emerging technologies. Prater is the vice president of development there. They sat down recently to dive into current and future projects, and the current and future state of manufacturing technology. Their enthusiasm and senses of humor kept the talk focused and light.

IndustryWeek: Earlier today, you two delivered a talk about incorporating new technologies into manufacturing. When discussing the Internet of Things, you said, “Don’t get caught up in the hype. IoT is only as important as how you can use it.” Hype is good, but it’s an acronym. It’s short for Hope You Practiced Enough. Let’s start with IoT, IIoT: What are you guys working on behind the scenes, or what do you see in the next six or 12 months?

Jerry Foster: A lot of it is, for me, our IoT is really centered around our wearables right now. It’s cool stuff, but as we look at what’s coming down the pipe, my team is going to be looking into some technology partners, some technology platforms, because IoT is just integrated with Big Data. They go hand in hand, they’re just two buzzwords that stick together. We want to make sure we have solutions when our customers come to us with questions.

Jason Prater: Right now, our customers, especially in automotive, they’re just getting hammered for capacity, and they’re all terrified to grow, they’re all terrified to spend money — and that’s because of what happened in the recession. Like my family business, it got wiped out. They’re all very capital-sensitive right now, so they’re going to run super efficiently. You’re going to see more sensors in manufacturing. The whole idea of SBC will die in the next decade, because you won’t need to do it.

Sensors: Last year, Detroit had a big rain storm and the city flooded. There were thousands of cars in the underpasses and a customer was worried about warranty claims coming back on products, that they’re now defective on products that he can’t confirm are flooded or not. So we talked about putting sensors on all his products. They'll justify the cost.

The next thing will be connected devices. Especially for more complex manufacturers, of course connected is the future.

IW: Privacy always seems to be a big deal when it comes to connected devices. (This conversation was conducted prior to the headline-grabbing Jeep hacking and the subsequent Fiat Chrysler recall.)

Prater: I’m the technology optimist. I believe that technology will be used for bad things only when bad people get a hold of it. Jerry is a realist —

Foster: — and bad people will get a hold of it.

IW: Everything has to be secured. It’s just the first step.

Prater: It’s always interesting to see how consumers are different in different parts of the world. We have a lot of European customers, and they are fanatical about it. … They just have a very different perspective, even before (Edward) Snowden. Connected products that are relaying data back to somebody else, and they don’t know about it, they don’t have control over it, I think different markets will have radically different expectations. In the U.S., it will be a little more flexible — my toaster will tell me it’s going to catch fire before it actually catches fire, I’m cool with that — but in other parts of the world, they are not going to let that happen.

IW: There will always be cynics — I think it was Steve Wozniak who said IoT is a bubble — and there are people who dismiss it just because it’s a buzzword. People who are skeptical: How do you deal with them?

Prater: When we did our survey, we asked all our customers, we collected all this data, and we found that people who use sensors — and react to those sensors — have 5% better margins. We have this unique opportunity to take survey answers, match them up to benchmark data and drive more analysis around it.

Foster: I have a lot of distaste for buzzwords, but buzzwords start, like rumors, because there’s a nugget of truth in there somewhere. I feel like it’s my job to find it.

Prater: We released our Google Glass pilot the day they stopped selling it to consumers — at least within days of each other. The mainstream media had given up on it, but it’s a product for us now. Yeah, there is a hype cycle — buzzwords — and then there’s actual value.

IW: Is IoT, IIoT going to catch on in a larger consumer setting? Or is it going to transition into more of a manufacturer’s tool? Because it feels like it could become the latter.

Prater: It’s been around in manufacturing for a longer time. … It’s just expected now. Like GE, whenever they create a new product, it’s connected. It’s just expected. They would probably have no idea what to do if you said you didn’t want to connect: “Is this for the military? I’m confused.” Manufacturers love data — maybe because a lot of them are engineers, and they love to hear about data sets — and that’s where they see the value in it, where they’ll continue to drive it.

Foster: What I see on the consumer side, and maybe it’s just where we’re at — in the Rust Belt, rather than Silicon Valley — there seems to be more of a subset of geeky people who are interested in it. It doesn’t seem to be mainstream yet. I suspect on the West Coast, people are more into things like Nest. The consumer side is very fickle.

Prater: I like the Nest example. It’s a pretty good product, people love it — I want the one that locks your front door — and I think the price points will come down. I still don’t see the point of an IoT-connected refrigerator.

IW: Right. The big selling point for fridges always seems to be it will tell you when you need milk. I know when I need milk: Either when I’m out of milk, or when it smells.

Prater: Usefulness. Stanley, I think, has a garage door opener that will tell you if you left your garage door open when you leave, but also if it’s up at night. My wife and I always argue about, "You let the raccoons in."

IW: That’s useful.

Prater: The consumer side will pick up some more practical uses. It’s like the opposite of Glass: It’s ahead of the curve.

Foster: In Japan, they’re so far ahead of the game in this area, especially when it comes to robotics, even in the home. They have a different mindset, they have a different mentality, they think differently about privacy, and they’re interested in having all this robotic help in their consumer life. It completely dominates.

Prater: Maybe as the Boomers get up there in age.

Foster: They create robots for manual labor, too.

Virtual reality, safety, cloud ... and ingestibles

IW: You two are both high on the new Microsoft HoloLens.

Prater: I think it’s going to get into hazardous material handling, so when you go into, say, flash freezers — if you have water on you, it turns into ice immediately — it’s very dangerous for humans, so why should they be there? You just put a drone in there with a v.r. headset. It’s like our drone pilots today: They’re not flying over Yemen, they’re flying from Kansas. I think a lot of hazardous jobs in manufacturing will switch over to drones or virtual reality.

I think the safety aspect is going to be a big deal. I think safety will actually overcome a lot of the privacy concerns: You’re going to wear this and it’s going to track you so you don’t get killed.

IW: Switching gears a little, still focused on safety: Autonomous forklifts?

Prater: You’ve seen them?

IW: I haven’t.

Prater: They exist. They’re very slow because we don’t trust them yet. The first place I saw them was at Detroit Diesel, and a lot of times they move giant engines the size of a conference room table. I think that will continue to move forward — it will be one of those consumer technologies that Google is going to hammer the heck out of and spend hundreds of millions, and manufacturing will come along, say "Thanks" and plug it into forklifts. … Driving a forklift is hard. There’s a reason there are Ph.D.s working on it. I always told my guys, If you don’t feel safe driving it, just park it and walk away.

Foster: I worked in a dairy factory in high school and I crashed one. There were these cavernous rooms with archways about four feet lower than the ceiling. You had to remember to lower the forklift. One day, I was flying along and the whole forklift went on its back. It happened so fast.

IW: Thoughts on Big Data? Good? Necessary evil?

Foster: Good. It’s in the same camp as IoT: Buzzwords, talking heads, but we’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s not something that’s caught any of us in manufacturing off guard. We’ve been plotting the amount of data growth in our data system for a long time, anticipating what we’re going to do next, who we’re going to partner with, how we’re going to handle all this data. To me, it’s valuable, we’re working on it, but it’s been on our radar for years, so I try to not get too amped up about it.

Prater: Customers love having all that data. That’s why we don’t archive any of it.

Foster: And once you archive it, how do you best get it again? … Sit down and figure out what you want to store, because just to have everything, I guess you could do that because storage is cheap enough, but I’m skeptical of approaching Big Data that way. Everything we do has to have an R.O.I. Let’s be intentional about what you’re doing.

IW: Last question: What is the one thing that has you most excited about the future of manufacturing technology?

Foster: Some of the new database technologies coming out are extremely exciting. I haven’t seen advanced in database technology — a convergence of old business intelligence, combined with cloud and Big Data providing the opportunity to do things we’ve never done in analytics — in some time.

Prater: I have two. One is the size and complexity of Servo operating presses. Mechanical presses use mechanical or hydraulic motion to go up and down, while Servo uses a little electric motor. The Servo presses used to be small, now they’re getting huge, and it allows you to make parts quickly and efficiently. I’m a geek, I grew up in tool and die, and I saw that and immediately texted pictures to my brother.

Outside of that, it’s wearables, and that’s because we’re in the first phase of wearables. In the next five to seven years, as the consumerization continues to drive the innovation, you’re going to see some amazing things. I think this iteration of wearables is going to continue to go faster.

Foster: And even after that, you’re going to see ingestibles that start to monitor things inside you. That’s fascinating and kind of scary at the same time.

Prater: It’s getting so good so fast, it’s going to change a lot of industries.

IW: That makes you part robot.

Prater: I can’t wait. There are things that are going to make our lives better without turning us into robotic drones of death.

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