The manufacturing sector needs to make better use of the valuable data that often sits unused within their production environments, in order to dramatically improve efficiency, production operations and quality management, and the channel will play a crucial role in helping organisations to integrate analytical information technology across the shop-floor.
Historically, investment by manufacturers at shop-floor level has been consigned to process and control technologies, such as automation, machinery, hardware, devices and PLC’s, however, investment in information technology has remained incredibly low and, for many manufacturers, almost non-existent. As a result, the industry is still struggling to address fundamental issues around cost, value, risk and agility related to their production processes, despite years of older more established programs including Lean, Six Sigma and other manufacturing paradigms which are now delivering diminishing returns as the ‘low hanging fruit’ has already been harvested. It is worth remembering that many of these methodologies were developed decades ago, before we had ready access to digital information from PLCs, sensors and inline inspection equipment and as a result, manufacturers are now casting an eye to advanced shop floor information technologies including quality intelligence and analytics to boost performance and better optimise manufacturing processes. For this reason, manufacturers are now looking ever closer at their shop-floor environments to see what insights can be gleaned from valuable real-time production and machine data, rather than improvement cycles over the days, weeks or even months using more traditional methodologies.
Whilst it is tempting to think of the wider trends around machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive automation that we are beginning to see so much of in many other applications across the business, the shop floor is simply not ready for this yet. A critical component to the viability of those technologies is the widespread collection, aggregation and storage of digital information (read Big Data and IIoT), but most production environments are simply not capable of that yet and so investment would be futile. So really, the future needs to be about building the foundations and getting this digital infrastructure in place.
So how can the channel support this? More often than not, it is the operational management of a manufacturing business that is leading or pushing these projects, and IT are largely acting as facilitators and consultants to the process. Unlike their IT counterparts, operational management have little experience of working directly with IT vendors or the IT industry. Because of this they are turning to their incumbent suppliers of industrial and automation services who are quickly having to extend their experience and remit to cover these new service requirements. This also means that the vendors of manufacturing - especially shop-floor - oriented information technologies will increasingly find themselves working with clients via third parties, which in itself presents a massive future opportunity for the channel.