Moving to Smart Manufacturing: Your Plant is Talking to You!

Dec. 22, 2016
Here's how to catch the first two of four waves necessary to begin implementing smart manufacturing. Part two of a three-part series.

Some customer’s words not only stick with you, they shape your thinking forever after.

Many years ago, on a plant tour, a Brazilian pulp plant manager turned to me and said: “Can you help me understand the language of the mill? My mill is talking to me and I can’t understand. And my people can’t either.”

As discussed in my recent article, in the days of "dumb" manufacturing many people worked in the plant, but only a handful held mastery. That mastery was at least as much art as science, and it involved dealing with the actual machines.

Smart manufacturing means dealing with a digital clone of the machines.

Rather than managing physical assets or operational technology, we’re managing a digital clone that we create, through informational technology. We can manage the machines when we’re nowhere near them.

How do we do that – how do we get to smart manufacturing? By catching four waves--just like a surfer. In this and my next article, I’m going to discuss these four waves. And the first wave is--actually, no. I’m going to start with Wave 0. Here we go…

Wave 0: Enablement

Traditionally, the people who manage the control networks in the plant are a constrained resource. They’re not available to make the data available, and this is no accident.

Because control engineers were the gatekeepers. If they didn’t isolate and protect the control networks, minor changes would have major impacts on operations. Not good! 

This meant you could have 15 lines, run by 15 isolated networks--15 fiefdoms. Because if you had only one control system for 15 lines, any glitch would bring them all down.

And that’s the mentality that many control engineers were raised in. 

But there’s nothing today that prevents us from connecting these fiefdoms to a wider network to share information.

So the enabling phase of smart manufacturing is to harness IT expertise to bridge this gap. Plus, convince the control people to give up their hard-won ownership. Remembering that IT and Control aren’t always the best of pals…

It’s never a walk in the park; you have to get two divergent groups, with different goals and fears, working together. But if you don’t have this enablement, you have nothing.

If you don’t catch Wave 0, you won’t catch any of the others.

Wave 1: Visualization

Visualization is the ability to actually see what’s going on! And it’s valuable to a wide range of people--operators, lab technicians, supervisors, engineers, and managers. So aim to get that data into as many hands as possible. 
Visualization shows you:

  • What is running, what is not
  • What is in maintenance, what is not
  • Which orders are running, which are not
  • Scheduled attainment
  • Percentage waste on each line.
  • Last but far from least, what is trending … allowing users to quickly see cause and effect and find relationships between measurements.

Plants talk best in visual. And it’s worth the effort; visualization can cater to and elevate the productivity of every stakeholder.

I remember a meeting where a Process Engineer spoke up to say: “We can save disk space by only storing the data when the machines are running--it’s the only data we care about.” Up spoke Maintenance: “But we want the data where the machines are not running so we can calibrate the instruments!”

Visualization solves this one:

  • Accounting sees total consumption numbers, to determine cost of raw material consumed.
  • Maintenance sees stoppages and breakdowns--no matter how minor.
  • And so on and so on.

Visualization delivers value and enables action, in real time. Better yet, visualization allows you to ask questions you’d never even thought of before.

Wave 2: Efficiency

Now you have visualization, you can begin to hone in on efficiency.

Downtime may be the best example of what you’ll see better with smart manufacturing, and of how that leads to increased efficiencies. Tracked by a clipboard-toting humanoid, you miss a lot. Not only that, human-gathered data is suspect.

Continuing with downtime as an example, with smart data:

  • You can identify and change unproductive patterns, e.g. multiple small stops. You’ll see the ones that are invisible to human eyes, the ones that never get recorded, but have a considerable negative influence on performance.
  • You enable root cause analysis. You’ll find out the top three (or five, or ten) reasons why you’re stopping, and the cost of those stops. And that’s the basis of continuous improvement.
  • Going beyond downtime to the big picture, you’ll know, with accuracy, where your energy is going, how much waste you are generating per line, and when you have rate loss. Armed with this information (rather than the often-biased guesses pre-smart manufacturers have to make) you can make the right choices to improve efficiencies and performance.
  • Everyone begins to speak the same language, there’s one version of the truth, because you get context around your KPIs. Rather than “the machine went down,” it’s “the machine went down on Charlie’s shift, on work order 257, customer 8.”
  • Often, a friendly competition over KPIs develops between lines and shifts, leading to improved efficiency, engagement, and morale. Not bad!

That was Waves 1 and 2! Tune in to my next article for Waves 3 and 4, the last two to catch to get to Smart Manufacturing.

Charles A. Horth is the CEO of Factora, a company of manufacturing consultants who use software to help factories achieve their full potential by raising the visibility of key information on the shop floor so that plant management, employees and company leadership can run more efficient manufacturing systems.

About the Author

Charles Horth | Chief Executive Officer

Charles A. Horth is the Chief Executive Officer at Factora, a company of manufacturing consultants who use software to help factories achieve their full potential by raising the visibility of key information on the shop floor so that plant management, employees and company leadership can run more efficient manufacturing systems.

Over the past two decades, Charles has served manufacturers throughout the globe in virtually every industry including pulp and paper, food and beverage, aluminum, glass, mining, consumer packaged goods, automotive and ethanol.

In 2013, he was one of the architects behind the successful merger of System Technologies for Industry and SlimSoft Solutions and the ensuing creation of Factora. He currently serves on the board of MESA (Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association).

For more information on Charles and Factora, visit or check out his LinkedIn profile here.

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