The Fourth Industrial Revolution is moving faster than anticipated. Recent research released by Plex Systems found the manufacturing floor is further along than generally perceived thanks in large part to connectivity and cloud computing, which has become the tipping point to accelerate digital transformation.
Now in its third year, The State of Manufacturing Technology study investigates manufacturers’ use of technology from the shop floor to the top floor. It surveyed more than 150 manufacturers, including both mid-sized and large enterprises across a wide range of process and discrete industries, such as including automotive, aerospace, electronics, industrial manufacturing, food and beverage, and precision metalforming.
Although academics and analysts have predicted the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) to be further out, the Plex study found at least four major aspects of are already in place. In a telephone interview with EBN Online, Andrew McCarthy, vice president of communications at Plex, said the cloud is happening now in manufacturing, and it’s the springboard to other digital transformation projects. “There’s a good understanding that enterprise software is moving to the cloud,” he told EBN.
The Plex study found the value of cloud systems for business-critical capabilities is now firmly established, including Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES), with 96% of survey respondents noting that improvements in connectivity to systems, machines, suppliers, and customers are a direct result of cloud systems. McCarthy said once manufacturers get a modern system of record in place and leverage the cloud, other modern innovations are easier to deploy, with 98% of respondents reporting that cloud-based systems are a key enabler for continuous innovation.
Because manufacturers need robust connectivity to exploit the cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes a logical next step of digital transformation, he said. The Plex survey found that 74% of respondents cited improved connectivity with mobile and personal devices, and more than half have improved industrial equipment integration using cloud technologies. “There's this broad perception of manufacturing as a technology laggard,” said McCarthy, but he prefers to describe it as “pragmatic.”
An example of this pragmatism, he said, is manufacturers deploying consumer tablets rather than bespoke devices. A ruggedized handheld scanner can cost several thousand dollars, but a budget-priced tablet can offer an equally good user experience on the shop floor with a customized user interface appropriate for the environment. “With legacy systems, creating a tailored experience was a software project,” said McCarthy. “Now creating a custom experience on shop floor is straightforward stuff.”
Manufacturers are experimenting with new tablets at they come out, he added, as well as repurposing retail beacons, thereby making “incremental marches in innovation,” and being more devices can easily be deployed that connect to cloud systems to pull more data from the shop floor.
The Plex survey found that as manufacturers connect their production lines, supply chains, and even their products, the amount of data captured is growing exponentially. Twice as many manufacturers are using analytics today when compared to last year’s study, with even more planning implementations over the next five years.
As a result, Big Data is changing what skills are needed on the shop floor, said McCarthy. Nearly half of respondents (48% ) highlight data analysis as the most important skillset for their next generation of employees, with data analysis and software engineering in the top five of skills needed, he said. “Skilled workers are still the big obstacle for growth,” he added. “The inadvertent outcome of college education is it created a generation that doesn't look at manufacturing as an innovation opportunity.”
The shift to the cloud and timely data from the shop floor is also transforming supply chain planning, said McCarthy. Sixty percent of those surveyed noted better supply chain performance using a cloud-based system of record, while 70% of respondents saw improved communications with their own suppliers because there is a customer community that shares information, he said. “The shift to cloud changes the nature of customer/vendor relationships because all organizations using a given cloud solution are on same version all of the time.”