May 12 2016

Philippe Virlouvet

Is Data the New King of Manufacturing Technology?

16982400_sThere’s an old saying, “The tail wags the dog.” It refers to any situation where a secondary offshoot of the main operation ends up taking control. Broadly, it can mean a shifting of the power base: the servant becomes the master. I think we may be looking at exactly this scenario in the world of manufacturing technology.

A major disruption is underway, and it’s all about the data. Or to be more accurate, it’s about what that data can tell decision-makers about quality, reliability, production processes, supply chains, materials, product design, customer demand—virtually everything a manufacturer cares about!

The ramifications will reach all the way from the far corner of the remotest shop floor to the corner office.

It’s Been a Long Road Getting to this Point

Originally, manufacturing data was merely a by-product of basic shop floor automation. Since the 1980s or so, shop floor data has been managed by Data Historian applications that capture key metrics from production equipment and processes at regular intervals, time-stamp them, and send them to an archive. Until recently, this kind of data was used primarily by specialists such as process engineers. Data was the “tail,” if you will.

How things have changed! Once management got a taste of Business Intelligence tools in the 1990s and early 2000s (and more recently analytics), they have wanted more, especially from manufacturing. “Why can’t I have more insights into manufacturing processes?” “Why can’t I relate our suppliers to quality?” “Why do we have a fortune tied up in materials?” “Why does it take a month to isolate a problem?”

Management is hungry for information about what’s going on in their operations, and the traditional Data Historian vendors are struggling to keep up with this demand.

A New Generation of Data Vendors

This need for meaningful data has spawned a new generation of software that is starting from big data “at the edge,” but is aiming for even bigger things.

Vendors in big data analytics for manufacturing are many, ranging from small start-ups to more traditional brick and mortar companies that see data as the real drivers of business. They are using the Cloud and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to create a new business ecosystem for manufacturing—one that is built on and profits from data, almost as much as from products themselves.

Based on open source software, these new data platforms are designed for an IIoT world. They can capture data from any sensor, equipment, mobile phone or any smart device and send it to the Cloud where it can be aggregated and analyzed. They can use both structured and unstructured data. They come with developer’s tools for creating applications, and communications tools for linking to anything. Analytics can be applied to mine the data, search for problems and opportunities, explore options, and so on.

Theoretically, in this new data ecosystem, it doesn’t necessarily matter what equipment is underlying it. What matters is moving materials, buying and selling them, adjusting to market demand.

Workers are data points as well, at least from a resource point of view. We can envision a virtual team, linked by their tablets and the IIoT, redesigning products and redirecting manufacturing resources on the fly. Where those people are located physically would be irrelevant.

Here Comes the Disruption

This new data ecosystem promises to be disruptive in many ways.

For one, it will allow manufacturers to treat their production-related assets almost as liquid assets. Big multinational companies want to redefine their business models to aggressively trade any asset at the globe scale. Once you have connected all your information systems, you can trade assets across divisions within a company, or even on the public trading floor.

For example, instead of materials in inventory sitting unused and tying up capital, those materials could become a dynamic, tradeable asset creating profits for the company. As long as you can get the right material to the right place at the right time that meets production requirements, why not?

This data ecosystem can also help drive mass customization and order-of-one manufacturing. With data extractable from everything, and cross referenced to all manufacturing processes, you can find more personalized ways of creating and delivering products—because you know more about your customer, and because you know more about how to manufacture fast.

The disruption in the IT world could go far beyond the impact on Data Historian vendors. Some people are asking a straightforward question: since these big data analytics solutions will be able to provide the means to see and control all the material assets of a company, shouldn’t they be the enterprise IT platform of choice? With the power of big data analytics, a manufacturer could mine vast amounts of production and customer data, identify markets, improve processes, and even drive product or process redesign. In other words, drive the business.

If information is power, and it certainly is in today’s global marketplace, then the center of gravity in manufacturing IT may well be shifting to the big data analytics players. What was once an offshoot of simple programmable machines could now be poised to become the enterprise platform of the future! The tail is about to start wagging the dog.


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May 03 2016

Mike Kruggel

9 Ways to Gain Efficiency in Warehouse Management

18196741_sAs with most businesses, efficiency can make the difference between profit and loss. In warehouse management, this is particularly true. The most resourceful warehouse operators use some or all of these techniques to stay ahead of the competition.

1.    Smart Layout

Successful warehouse operators have a carefully thought out plan for storage. It makes sense to store the most commonly picked items near the front of the area and items that are often sold together near one another. To ensure maximum utilization of available space, store items of a similar size and shape on the same racks. This prevents misplacing small items that slip behind large cartons, and allows the most consistent use of vertical space.

2.    Review the Layout Periodically

There are thousands of potential space and rack configurations for most warehouses, but there are only a few that allow maximum use of the available space. Since unfilled space rarely changes but product mix evolves over time, it makes sense to review your warehouse layout every one or two years to be certain it is still optimum for the current product mix. For example, many products get smaller in subsequent generations, but the space between shelves may still be utilized for the behemoths of early generations.

3.    Think Up

Before relegating popular items to the distant reaches of the warehouse, which could have an adverse impact on efficiency, consider using more of your vertical space. You might store overstock on high shelves to make space on lower shelves for more items near the front of the warehouse, for example.

4.    Standardize

Many people don’t realize how standardizing on bins, cases and shelves can improve the productivity of a warehouse. When material is stored consistently, it’s easier to find items or to put away items, Shelving can be set to the optimum distance for the standard bin sizes, for example, ensuring full use of the entire space. Standard packaging also makes it easier to find items when picking, improving organization and adding further to efficiency.

5.    Eliminate Non-Value Added Actions

The journey to lean consists of a relentless pursuit and elimination of waste. Examine all of your processes, at least annually, to ensure that unnecessary steps haven’t crept in. It also makes sense to review product mix to confirm that newly popular items are stored near the front rather than at a distance. If the warehouse is equipped with data collection, ensure there are enough stations and that they are positioned to make it easy to perform transaction entries. Check for shortages and open orders when material arrives, so the team doesn’t put it away and pick it again immediately.

6.    Training

People retain only a small percentage of the material they learn, and that percentage dwindles even further over time. While some people chafe at spending time on training warehouse personnel, the increased productivity that is gained when the team knows the best way to perform their duties can more than offset any lost time. Even long-term team members should undergo periodic refresher training. According to research published by Vanderbilt University, learning builds from previous knowledge. The more exposure learners have to information, the more of the information they will retain. A well-trained team is a proficient team, but that takes time and repetition.

7.    Sophisticated Picking Methods

Assuming they still get pick orders in batches, well-organized warehouses use wave or consolidated picking to eliminate the number of times warehouse personnel make the long trek to the back of the warehouse. By consolidating orders and picking for multiple orders on a single trip to a section or aisle, efficiency increases dramatically. Automated picking for routine products is the ultimate in efficiency.

Today, many warehouses receive pick orders in a continuous flow, which doesn’t lend itself to wave picking. These warehouses can still be effective by using streamlined business processes and working toward best practices for picking and storage.

8.    Eliminate Paper

Paper takes space; it gets lost; and it has to be printed, filed and stored. There is nothing resourceful — or green — about paper-based warehouse processes. Convert to electronic picking lists, radio-frequency (RF) devices and other paperless methods as often as possible.

9.    Consider Automation

Going through the above efficiency checklist is a great step towards improving overall profitability. For those operators still using manual systems, these steps are a great way to prepare for automation. Implementing an IT system to help with warehouse management doesn’t tell you what steps to do – it merely performs them with greater speed. Given the advanced capabilities and sophisticated planning options now available, you are really operating at a disadvantage without some sort of IT system today. Take the time to understand how your processes can work best before hiring an implementation team when considering this paperless option.


Efficiency is a combination of best practices, vigilance and common sense. Stay up to date on the newest material-handling techniques and equipment, and make sure to review all your practices and procedures frequently to ensure continuous improvement and a successful warehouse.


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Apr 28 2016

Megan Nichols

What Is Defining the Future of Aerospace Technology?

26623643_sInnovation has always been the cornerstone of the aerospace industry, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Like any industry, aerospace faces its share of challenges. But since aerospace touches so many other industries, including defense and passenger aviation, there should never be a shortage of new technologies to keep the industry thriving.

Here are a few things driving new aerospace technology.

The Future of Passenger Aircraft

At a glance, the passenger airplane has undergone very few changes over the past few decades. Perhaps aircraft emissions, regulations, and standards, along with the cost of fuel, will change this, causing a need for new aerospace technology.

It’s already happening in the auto industry. Concerns over the effects diesel and unleaded fuels have on the environment led to the rise of hybrid cars.

Could the passenger airline industry be next? The cost of fuel is also a challenge for that industry, so airlines may begin looking for hybrid aircraft that would significantly lower the cost of fuel, not to mention the effect on the environment.

It may be a long way off, but innovation in the area of hybrid-electric aircraft is already underway. The UK is interested in developing the plane. The proposed aircraft will be powered by biofuel engines, which will drastically reduce emissions.

The Future of Tourism … In Space

In recent years, there has been talk that passenger space travel could be a possibility in our lifetimes, and it seems that goal nears fruition every day. In fact, just recently, Elon Musk’s SpaceX made history by successfully landing a rocket in an upright position on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean.

As consumer space tourism comes closer to reality, there will no doubt be a need for safe and efficient technologies that can be mass-produced.

The aerospace industry will have more to do than just getting passengers into space, though. For example, one company is working on a 12,000-cubic-foot inflatable space habitat that could potentially support space tourism.

The Constant Churn of Products

As we’ve seen in the computing industry, new products can fade away quickly. There’s always a new model of computer, tablet, or mobile phone right around the corner.

The same could be said for the aerospace industry. By definition, aerospace is at the forefront of technology, and there will always be a need for lighter, more compact, more durable and more efficient products — whether it’s actuators, ball splines, or stud roller systems. Engineers’ need to continuously test and create lightweight, durable material that can support the load of airplanes and spacecraft.

That’s true not only in the US, but worldwide. The US aerospace and defense sector added $5 billion in exports in 2015, with more growth expected this year, meaning demand around the world is strong.

That was nearly 10 percent of total US exports last year. To put another way, global demand for American aerospace technology is a large driver of the domestic economy and should continue to be a motivator for continued excellence in innovation.

Not Without Challenges

Aerospace is a booming industry, but it still faces its share of challenges.

One of the big ones is the defense segment of the aerospace industry — specifically, declining defense budgets. Over the past three years, decreased revenues in the US defense subsector negatively impacted global aerospace and defense industry revenue, driven by fewer large defense contracts than in years past.

There is evidence that could be changing, however. Defense budgets in several influential countries, including the US, England, France and Japan, are now on the rise — along with security threats around the world.

It’s not as if there is less of a need for aerospace innovation in the defense sector — it’s just that demand is often swayed by the state of global military conflicts, and their unpredictability is a major challenge.

Still, the aerospace industry is poised for continued growth for the foreseeable future, both in terms of revenue and technological innovation. In the coming years, there will be plenty of demand for quieter, smoother and more ergonomically sound designs, and that should continue to drive aerospace technology forward.

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Apr 22 2016

Q&A: Michelle Mertens, Hitachi Computer Products, Inc.

Michelle MertensI had the opportunity to participate in a webcast between Michelle Mertens, Hitachi Computer Products, Inc. and Andrew Hughes, Principal Analyst MOM Practice at LNS Research. If you are interested in hearing this discussion, it is available to watch here.

Below is a condensed transcript of select questions that were asked by the audience immediately following the presentation. This feedback offers a unique perspective of what challenges Hitachi Computer Products had to overcome while in process of implementing their global manufacturing execution system.


BENZIE: Which was your pilot factory, and how were the processes rolled out to the next three factories? Was it simultaneous, or sequential?

MERTENS:  The initial footprint was created at our U.S. factory in 2009. That was prior to the global initiative. We were in the process of replacing our current MES. At that time, the factory in Japan was using a purchased product and then the factory in Europe was using a homegrown solution. So, when it came time to select a global product, if you will, obviously ours was one of the candidates. But, at that point, we worked with the Japan team to pilot a smaller piece of functionality across the DELMIA Apriso technology stack as a proof of concept.  Once everything started rolling and we truly had the global initiative, we had to realign our local U.S. implementation because, of course, we made a significant amount of changes to go into the global as practiced type of structure, and we were essentially already live with some changes that we referred to as re-factorizations. Then we brought up one of our major product lines – the European factory first – and then the second product line across the U.S. and the European factory and then moved on to the Japan factories. So we did not do any type of Big Bang, if you will. We certainly rolled them out so that we could have the proper staff both technically and functional end to support everything.

BENZIE: As part of your implementation, there was likely a question on how to “draw the line” between what would be done in ERP and what would be done in MES? And, in a thirty second answer please? 🙂

MERTENS:  Well, basically, having worked on several ERP implementations as well in the past, for us – the ERP is where the money is. The MES is where the process is – the quality and, for us, the traceability. So, anything that’s going to source MRP or that’s going to source finance, the system of record is going to be the ERP system. The process, the quality and pure traceability – the system of record was going to be the MES. How’s that for a quick answer?

BENZIE:  That’s very impressive.

BENZIE:  Is there any R&D functionality within this deployment you’ve done and a minimum size for facilities that makes sense?

MERTENS:   In terms of the MES, the R&D aspects are not tracked in our MES. We do manufacturing, of course, quality as well as starting to look at some aspects of customer repair. Our system of record as well as our research and development foundation is actually managed in a separate system. So, essentially, I’d say the answer to that question would be no at this time if I understand it correctly.

BENZIE:  Mm-hmm. How about a minimum size for a facility? Do you see that? I mean, you’ve done three now. Do you see that there might be a minimum or do you think that this could be deployed, regardless of size?

MERTENS:  Yeah, I think absolutely. The smaller the easier.  Because we’re an electronics manufacturer and we’re doing some pretty high end solutions, we consider our foundation to be pretty complex. And, in working with our counterparts within our industry as well as manufacturing , now it’s become pretty evident that what we’ve deployed here is pretty intricate and complex. When we look at some of our product lines that are a lot more basic, they were able to do more of a modular type of approach. Those are able almost to be plug-and-play so, from a certain sense, as a member of a team those would be the ones that would be the easiest to do. Definitely, from a scalable standpoint the smaller – the less complex – the easier it is just to plug it out there. I don’t think there really is a minimum.

BENZIE:  Sounds logical.


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Apr 19 2016

Do Forklifts Have a Place in the Warehouse of the Future?

forklift_warehouseToday, just as it’s been for several decades, forklifts are a common sight in warehouses. They are a vital part of the entire warehousing process – from taking new products off the truck for storage, to moving them to different shelving areas, to putting them back on a truck for delivery. But with automation, robots and other new technologies, some people in the industry are starting to wonder if forklifts will have any place in the warehouse of the future. Are they becoming obsolete?

An Increased Use of Automation

Led by companies such as Amazon, many warehouses are moving to more automated storage and retrieval processes. As this technology and robotics improve, it has become faster and cheaper to make use of automation in warehouses. Using barcodes and scanners (or similar technologies), these robots can accurately select inventory, or entire pallets of products, move them to a new location, and update information in the inventory system. Everything is done quickly and efficiently.

This equipment can interface directly with Production, Shipping and Inventory systems. Technology in the warehouse can now instantly receive a customer order, find the correct shelf or bin, pull the necessary number of items, and place them with other ordered items for shipping. Once the packing is complete, an Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) can take the box to the truck. Forklifts won’t be needed in any part of the process since AGVs are basically self-driving forklifts.

Fewer People Are Needed

It also requires less people. Rather than hiring a number of forklift drivers and other employees, one single person can operate a fleet of AGVs. The only area where a human may be needed is the actual packing of the box, and then that’s really only necessary if there are multiple items of different sizes or if the items are fragile and need to be carefully wrapped. In some cases where this does not apply, robots can even package up the materials.

A Reduction in Risk

Because fewer people are now needed on the warehouse floor, the warehouse overall will become safer. Even if robotic forklifts and other machines were to crash into each other, no one would actually get hurt. Vehicle operators do not have to worry about back and neck pain from awkward posture, continually reaching for levers, and climbing up into the forklift. When people do need to be involved, the robots can hold pallets at the optimal height so there is no need to bend down or reach up while moving heavy items.

A Reduction in Errors

When humans are involved, there is always the chance of errors being made. While robots may not be absolutely perfect, there are far fewer issues with inventory control. There is little risk of a robot selecting the wrong item or selecting too many or too few items. An automated system is not likely to forget to adjust the number of items or pallets in the inventory or forget to log a change in inventory location, since each device has its own built-in location tracker.

A Slow Shift

Getting back to the original question of what role forklifts will play in the future, there is no need to worry quite yet. While automated picking systems may have started replacing the forklift in some warehouses, Forklifts are not likely to vanish from the warehouse tomorrow, especially not in smaller warehouses. Automation technology tends to have a greater return on investment when implemented in larger facilities, resulting it its use being somewhat limited in smaller ones (cloud-based solutions, however, are changing this paradigm too). Who knows what market absorption might exist in another ten or twenty years!


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