Mar 26 2015

The 4th Industrial Revolution is Coming – But What Is It?

The 4th Industrial Revolution is Coming

Click to enlarge. Image credit: Report on Recommendations for implementing the strategic initiative INDUSTRIE 4.0

It’s been called the Factory of the Future, the Smart Factory, the Industrial Internet, Industrie 4.0 and the 4th Industrial Revolution, among other names. Whatever you call it, everyone seems to agree that it’s coming soon, and it will change manufacturing as we know it.

In a nutshell, the 4th Industrial Revolution is a world where machines are intelligent, networked, and can communicate with each other and with humans. It is the ramifications of this connectivity that has the academic and analyst worlds excited.

What exactly will this new world look like? Everyone seems to have their own opinion. According Acatech, an academic advisory group out of Germany, there are more than 134 different interpretations of the Industrie 4.0 vision. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the revolution is in its early stages, driven by early adopters. How fast they are moving and in what direction will depend a lot on the infrastructure already in place—those with automated systems that stretch from enterprise planning, design and execution (e.g. design, plan and build) will be ahead of the curve.

The Tug of War over Direction

Another reason for confusion is that each of the “official” organizations trying to map the future of manufacturing is not in agreement, so are waging an economic battle over what happens next. Essentially, there are two major industry organizations attempting to lay the foundation. One is based in Germany, and the other is in the U.S. (There are several other groups and consortiums, but these two are the largest and most influential.)

Germany’s Industrie 4.0.

The German perspective, called Industrie 4.0, was founded in 2013 by the German government. It has become a cornerstone of that country’s high-tech strategy. Industrie 4.0 focuses on design principles and standards. More importantly, considerable attention has been placed on communicating a need for greater automation across these areas of manufacturing:

  • Interoperability
  • Virtualization
  • Decentralization
  • Real-Time Capability
  • Service Orientation
  • Modularity

This focus should not be surprising, given the heavy emphasis of German automation companies that operate in this space. Germany also promotes the Leading-Edge Cluster Competition, which has awarded tens of millions of Euros to collaborative teams of companies and researchers working to advance the technologies needed to make Industrie 4.0 a reality. To date, the German effort has not produced concrete results. This has some supporters worried that Industrie 4.0 may be on the verge of failure.

The U.S.’s Industrial Internet Consortium.

The U.S approach, under the banner of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), was formed in 2014 by a collaboration of companies that include AT&T, Cisco, GE, IBM and Intel. The IIC’s approach is built on three main pillars:

  1. Intelligent (connected) systems and devices
  2. Advanced Analytics (to deal with the huge amount of data coming from those connected systems)
  3. Knowledge power (of the people working with those systems and using those advanced analytics)

The emphasis on the human side of the equation (vs. the automation side) is considered by many to be an important advantage of the IIC. Another advantage is its focus on finding practical solutions through the creation of industry use cases and “testbeds” to drive innovation in real-world applications. Testbeds are a key part of the IIC effort, providing “a controlled experimentation platform, conforming to an IIC reference architecture, where solutions can be deployed and tested in an environment that resembles real-world conditions.”

In February of this year, Bosch, Cisco, National Instruments and TechMahindra formed the first testbed to come out of the IIC. This “Track and Trace” testbed has the goal of “managing handheld power tools in manufacturing and maintenance environments,” and will aim to track and trace the use of these tools to ensure their proper use, prevent their misuse and collect data on their usage and status.

Who will be the Winner?

For now, the momentum seems to be with the Industrial Internet Consortium, thanks to its early results. But, whichever way the battle turns out, everyone stands to gain in the end. Manufacturing enterprises will transition smoother into the digital age of the connected factory – and with this transformation will come virtual products, on-demand production, mobile real-time analytics, and all the rest of the exciting benefits promised by the Factory of the Future. How soon will it happen? Most experts predict major strides over the next five years.

The important questions that manufacturers should be asking today are: “What should I be doing to get ready? What will the platform requirements be, and how can I start building it?”

I’ll take a look at these questions in my next post.


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Mar 24 2015

From Real to Virtual and Back: Current and Future Trends In 3D Imaging

trends-3D-printingBy now, you’ve probably heard a lot about 3D data acquisition and reconstruction. The 3D revolution is quickly changing our modern world. Fast-evolving technologies have made it increasingly simple for even home users to translate objects from the physical world into digital data that can be stored, manipulated, edited, and otherwise tweaked in cyberspace.

This trove of digital information can then be used to summon imaginative objects into the real world. Already, functional 3D printers enable hobbyists to recreate any number of objects, of course with certain limitations. Most consumer-level objects are rendered in thermoplastic or biodegradable organic materials.

At present, 3D imaging and printing are novelties among consumers. However, 3D imaging/printing is poised to become the next transformative technology. Consumers may be slower to adopt, but commercial interests cannot afford to ignore the promise of 3D acquisition and reconstruction for tasks like rapid prototyping and more. Experts expect the technology to drive innovation in numerous industries, including architecture, engineering, art, aerospace, education, manufacturing and even medicine.

Endless Possibilities

The possibilities of 3D imaging seem limitless. It’s now possible to build rough prototypes using traditional methods, scan those objects into a computer, manipulate the obtained data sets to make final virtual improvements, and then 3D print the final prototype object. Even though computer assisted design (CAD) has been around for decades, advances in computing and other technologies are taking CAD to a new level.

The potential advantages for manufacturing are fairly obvious. Opportunities for streamlining the prototyping process are one example. Once 3D data has been acquired, it can be quickly manipulated, refined, altered and improved using nothing more than sophisticated software. Digital modeling and fabrication are quickly becoming indispensable tools. 3D modeling software, combined with machines, such as CNC routers, laser cutters, and 3D printers are capable of yielding physical objects in a variety of materials.

3D printing, also called additive manufacturing (AM) uses 3D data to build an object in physical space. Data is sent to an industrial robot, capable of sequentially depositing layers of material, or using techniques such as sintering or extrusion. The difference between the old and new is simple: Old techniques relied on carefully removing material to arrive at a final prototype. AM uses sequential-layer material addition or joining, under automated control, to produce a 3D object from the ground up.

Image Acquisition

There are a number of techniques available to acquire appropriate 3D image files. The process can be as simple as using multiple exposures from 2D cameras, to sophisticated images constructed using computed axial tomography (CT) scan. Of course, CT uses X-rays to penetrate beneath the surface of an object, providing detailed information about its internal structure.

3D images may also be acquired using other forms of sensors. Lasers, for example, are employed by the Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) system to provide terrestrial scanning information about large, possibly hidden objects in the landscape. When combined with ground-level images (photogrammetry), this technology can render 3D models of buildings, roads and other structures — yielding, in essence, a virtual cityscape in three dimensions. Add data in the form of GPS-location tagging, and the model becomes a reliable, detailed representation of the real world. Already, this technology is harnessed to improve outcomes in archeology, architecture and other fields.

Saving Lives — Limitless Potential

Perhaps some of the most exciting potential applications involve the medicine field. A branch of 3D imaging/printing called bioprinting is already being used to manufacture tissues for prostheses and grafting — including skin, bone, cartilage, and even heart tissue. This remarkable use of AM combines biocompatible materials with cells and other components to generate living, functional tissues suitable for transplantation and safe assimilation into the body.

“3D printing allows for tailor-made materials for personalized medicine,” said Horacio R. D’Agostino, M.D., in a recent press release. “It gives us the ability to construct devices that meet patients’ needs, from their unique anatomy to specific medicine requirements … With some patients, the current one-size-fits-all devices are not an option,” added D’Agostino. “3D printing gives us the ability to craft devices that are better suited for certain patient populations that are traditionally tough to treat, such as children and the obese, who have different anatomy. There’s limitless potential to be explored with this technology.”

This arguably represents the most sophisticated use of the technology to date, as the challenges involved in building suitable biological materials from scratch are considerable. Just a handful of years ago, these trials seemed insurmountable, yet new applications are emerging almost on daily. Limitless potential indeed.


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Mar 19 2015

Mobility Makeovers are Transforming Manufacturing

mobility-in-manufacturingInnovation has been a driving force behind progress for businesses across all sectors. Success is often determined by an organization’s ability to select the best new technology, and then roll it out across their business before the competition. However, the temptation of the “shiny, new thing” is familiar to everyone. Many brands have fallen from chasing “cool technology” bought on a whim, without a long-term business plan to justify the investment.

One such arena where new mobile technologies are promising to transform business is within manufacturing operations. There is a lot of talk around tablets on the plant floor, apps planning work flows and touch screens replacing paper. Those that have assessed the value and usability of technology innovation, and have incorporated the adoption of this technology as part of a longer term business plan, are the ones that stand to reap the most rewards.

Mobility Strategy is now a Must Have

If you don’t at least have a mobility strategy of how you plan to leverage this technology now, then you would likely fall into the “laggard” category. I am not saying you need to have your mobility plan executed and completed – my point is that you should have a strategy by now, even if that strategy is to do nothing.

mobile_phone_users_chartWith the digital and global transformation of manufacturing operations, we increasingly live in a world with blurred boundaries. Our work lives are blending into our personal lives, and vice versa. Nowhere is this more evident than with smart phones. According to eMarketer, it is expected that 4.6 billion people worldwide will be using a mobile phone in 2014. Of that figure, nearly half are smart phones. This growth is expected to continue. See the chart at right.

All these smart phone users face the issue on evenings and weekends of “Do I check my work email?” And, of those that do, how often should I look? Of course, readily accessing email is just one feature of a smart phone. Custom developed apps are becoming increasingly common, which can include notifications should an alert be deemed necessary. For example, if you are a plant manager, and you have the option of being notified immediately if a power shut down occurs at your plant, wouldn’t you rather know first? Or, would you rather find out Monday morning, when your output report indicates an issue occurred yesterday, and you didn’t have a choice to do anything to fix it?

As manufacturing businesses work to meet higher customer expectations, shorter deadlines, tighter budgets and increasingly complicated specifications, any “edge” you can achieve can have significant results. The bottom line is that employees are increasingly being liberated from behind their desks, enabling them to be productive on the move. A business that has a shop floor solution that is consistent across the entire organization helps to reduce variation and defects while making it easier for workers to receive instructions and report activities. And, to respond faster to change, adversity, or whatever else that you would prefer to learn about sooner vs. later.

Manufacturers need a mobility solution that complements their existing infrastructure, is flexible to the dynamic environment of day-to-day operations, and can also be readily managed without extensive IT involvement. Given the pervasiveness of mobile communications, your mobility strategy needs to be an all or nothing approach. Businesses that don’t embrace mobility whole-heartedly will soon feel the pinch on their bottom line.

A Leadership Example

Alstom Transport is well on their way with a mobility strategy. Having recently deployed a Dassault Systèmes Manufacturing Execution System, they are now experiencing improved real-time visibility to their plant, greater enforcement of their manufacturing standards, reduced costs and even better quality. This is all thanks to a mobility makeover!

Watch a video on the full story here:


Why bother with paper when task schedules, work instructions and up-to-the minute status reports can be updated and shared via touch screens and portable tablets? Alstom Transport employees can login and out of tasks as they move around the plant floor enabling greater, more accurate data collection to feed continuous process improvement initiatives based on the manufacturing intelligence that is gained.

The aim for manufacturers in this day and age is for information to be distributed, acted upon, collected and analyzed in real-time without obstacles or hold ups. An MES system assures roadblocks to the flow of information are kept to a minimum. Imagine driving around a city and only ever hitting green lights! Once such a uniform system is in place, all employees, whatever their role, operate within the same system thereby increasing efficiency and reducing errors.

Real-time production visibility is no longer a pipe dream and is increasingly being realized by manufacturers of all sizes. As long as teams are fully invested and embrace the system across the whole business, the mobility makeover will make for a far leaner and profitable organization. In this case, the “shiny new thing” in manufacturing is mobility solutions and all the most successful businesses are now jumping on the bandwagon.


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Mar 16 2015

Managing Water in Manufacturing: A Challenge that’s Not Going to Evaporate

Water should be considered a tool in manufacturingA recent Manufacturing Transformation blog post, Can Manufacturers Do Something About the Weather? talked about how the record snowfall in the Northeast U.S. has impacted manufacturing operations. This article will take a look at the opposite problem – a lack of precipitation.

It’s easy to take water supplies for granted. We think of water as endless and nearly free. After all, while it may change its shape from liquid to gas to solid, it never really goes away, right? But of course, this is not really the case. It isn’t endless, nor is it free. This point has been driven home quite painfully to the millions of people and thousands of businesses in the Western United States over the past few years.

Since 2012, much of California has been suffering from a history-making drought, at an economic cost estimated to be over $2 billion so far. And the problem is only going to get worse. Climatologists predict that major, widespread droughts will become common in the U.S. by 2050. As a native Californian, I am living this first hand.

The question is, what should you as a manufacturing enterprise do about the water problem? What can you do about it?

Some supply chain experts suggest that it’s time for companies to change the way they look at water, as explained in a recent article by Kevin O’Marah at SCM World.  O’Marah argues that it may be smarter to look at water as a tool, rather than as a resource. He writes: “Water, in most supply chain situations like cooling, cleaning and various materials handling processes, is more akin to a tool that one uses, cleans and puts back on the shelf, than a flow-through consumable to be discarded as post-production waste.”

In other words, resources are used up, but tools are reused. The article points out that some big companies are putting this idea into practice in the form of recycling. A Pepsico plant in Columbia is now recycling 75% of its water, and Taiwan Semiconductor says it is reusing 90%!

In addition to recycling, there are other steps manufacturers will need to take. One is to adopt a long-range view of water. Supply chain strategists need to think of water in terms of availability over a span of years, because that metric may be more important than cost. This involves asking questions such as: Is the plant located where there’s a strong water infrastructure with long-range planning and policies? Is the local government committed to sustainable water supplies? Is there a history of droughts and shortages?

Finally, enterprises will need to be ready to respond quickly in their business operations and supply chains when sudden water shortages hit, a problem that’s likely to grow in the years ahead. This will mean being able to do everything from finding new suppliers to relocating production operations and processes to another part of the world, either temporarily or permanently. For companies with agile, enterprise operations platforms, shifting processes and logistics will be far less challenging than for those companies that are still using the manual systems of the past. But it won’t be easy for anyone.

As O’Marah points out, developing water reuse practices today, may keep you from having to take the more drastic step of moving your operations when future droughts hit. And those droughts will hit, as surely as the great snow melt coming this Spring will bring floods to the Northeast.


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Mar 10 2015

The Sky’s the Limit – Enterprise MES Moves to the Cloud

Manufacturing Execution Systems in the cloudFor at least two decades, Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) have been the workhorse of the factory floor, coordinating activities in all parts of production from tracking inventory to managing quality control. It may have started small—managing one production line—then perhaps one plant. Over the years, we’ve seen MES evolve into a mature, sophisticated system that can manage multiple worldwide facilities. The value of its data collection and visibility into manufacturing processes has earned MES the title of a strategic global system.

With such importance to manufacturing operations, shouldn’t MES have a place next to the enterprise systems too? Yes, it should. And it finally does, it seems.

Survey Findings

The 3rd annual survey on the business value of MES applications by Gartner and the Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association (MESA) reveals a new mindset. The majority of respondents (57%) indicated that their MES investments are enterprise-focused as opposed to the single site/one-off purchases of the past.

Investing in the future for long-term value was the key concept to emerge from the 2014 survey of 112 MES practitioners, along with these three themes:

  • Acceptance of MES as part of an organization’s overall manufacturing strategy
  • A move toward cloud-based MES deployments
  • The creation of a Center of Excellence (COE) to connect MES investments with desired business outcomes

Perhaps some of these points—a move toward the cloud, specifically—seem improbable. The security of the factory is the main concern. It’s a valid concern. But the technology to protect mission critical data is available. It just has to be factored into the strategic plan. Meanwhile, plant managers are reaching a greater comfort level with the cloud.

While 52% of respondents of the Gartner / MESA survey say today their MES deployments are on-premise at each site, in two years that number is expected to drop to 28%. By then, 21% of companies will deploy MES in a hybrid cloud set up, in which the applications are hosted in the cloud externally, but the database remains on-premise for reporting, KPIs, and continuous process improvement initiatives.

MES in the Public Cloud?

Another 4% of respondents are planning to move MES to the public cloud by 2017.

Did you just gasp in horror? Moving MES to the public cloud isn’t that scary. The cloud is a mysterious and highly misunderstood technology platform that is actually quite reliable and safe. Let’s face it; we’ve all been taking advantage of shared storage for quite some time in the form of MSN Hotmail or Yahoo mail. In addition, companies like Google and Apple have built their business in the cloud. And, there are ways to keep your space in the cloud private while the connection back to the enterprise remains highly secure.

Going forward, utilizing cloud technology just makes good business sense according to Gartner, from this latest report:

“The rapid deployment and quick value creation that improve flexibility and reduce costs make virtualization and remote hosting major motivational factors for cloud computing. Furthermore, migration toward the cloud could help alleviate some of the reported talent and skills obstacles to MES—most notably, internal resourcing and personnel issues and the availability/quality of implementation resources (both internal and external).”

Center of Excellence (COE) Plays a Pivotal Role

Of course, once an application starts to span the organization, there needs to be best practices and policies in place, which is why 39% of the survey respondents are moving to an MES COE that will align with the IT COE (which 50% of respondents say they will have in the near future) to focus on finding, developing, and sustaining standard processes. MES Centers of Excellence can drive life cycle governance for MES programs and accelerate benefits realization, Gartner says.

To that end, the long-term value manufacturers seek from an enterprise MES include: Improving quality, increasing visibility across the network, enforcing best practices; reducing cycle times/lead times, increasing asset utilization, and improving employee decision-making, cash flow, and regulatory compliance, among other things—like modernizing the IT infrastructure.

The bottom line is, MES is shedding the image of a stereotypical closed factory floor system and taking its rightful place alongside ERP and other enterprise systems. From here on in, the sky’s the limit for MES, which is breaking out of the factory four walls and becoming a strategic business tool.


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