by, Keith Waters, Manager, Industry Standards, Schneider Electric
The world is heading toward a digitized future. Already, an entire generation has grown up immersed in the digital world. Digital transformation—or the widespread adoption of digital technologies to disrupt business models, create efficiencies, and enhance the customer experience — is reinventing core aspects of human existence, from homes to industry, buildings to the cloud, and beyond.
Companies are pressured to transform to stay competitive digitally. There has been a rise in the number of chief digital officers (CDO) hired since the turn of the century, and a PricewaterhouseCoopers 2017 study found that approximately 19 percent of top global companies now have a CDO.
Despite the interest and investment, many companies are operating well below their digital potential. Digital transformation is a big ask, and the initiative often stalls or expires during the years required to achieve it. When done right, digital transformation should never end.
For best results and deeper integration, digital transformation should be carefully aligned with the organization’s objectives and return on investment (ROI) metrics. Digital transformation can fail as a result of insufficient or long ROI, coupled with a lack of cultural adoption and change management. Because enterprise technology adoption in the pandemic era might be considered high risk, companies should focus on small, modular tools that drive adoption but operate within a compliant data infrastructure. These tools will help build capability over time and deliver short term ROI while moving an organization down its technology roadmap.
Unlocking New Integration at an Old Factory
Our own experience helps put this idea in perspective. Schneider Electric operates a Lexington, Kentucky, manufacturing plant that has long produced high-quality load centers and safety switches for commercial and industrial power systems. The 500,000 square foot facility relies on 400 employees and state-of-the-art technology to produce over 16,500 finished goods per day. That includes nearly 9,000 load centers and over 6,000 safety switches, completely packaged and ready to ship.
The facility had accumulated lots of technology over the years—programmable logic controllers, a manufacturing execution system, power meters, to name a few. However, the plant’s legacy applications stored siloed information, which made data sharing and analysis difficult. To drive higher levels of efficiency, the data silos needed to be unlocked.
Lexington’s digitization journey began years ago when connected products were introduced to the factory floor to eliminate material handling waste; products like programable logic controllers, automation controls, and an Radio Frequency Identification System (RFID) system. This rich base of connected products enabled the facility to take the next steps: establishing more precise edge control and laying down a foundation for a new generation of advanced software apps and analytics. Soon the old factory was deploying cutting-edge software like ERP (enterprise resource planning), SAP, and MES (manufacturing execution system).
- Reduced mean time to repair by 20 percent
- Year-over-year energy savings of 3.5 percent
- Shrank system downtime by 5 percent
- Eliminated paper processes
- Achieved a rapid 2-year ROI
Easing into Digital Transformation with Scalable, Modular Tools
Practical and modular tools allow organizations to deliver short-term ROI or fail fast. There are digital tools today that only require a small investment because they rely on and leverage manufacturing systems already in place, such as human-machine interfaces (HMIs).
One such tool is a secure connection tool that allows for remote maintenance. An OEM or system integrator expert uses this cybersecure cloud connection to access an HMI or machine that is experiencing a problem. The expert then is able to diagnose the problem remotely by checking the machine data, parameters, and logging information. Next, depending on the issue identified, the OEM proposes the fastest way to implement a fix. In fact, in some cases, the OEM may discover the problem before the end-user realizes that the machine is underperforming.
If the problem diagnosed is simple to fix (such as providing a firmware upgrade or software adjustment), the OEM or system integrator can automatically process that fix using the secure cloud connection. If a basic on-site action is required (such as swapping out a clogged filter on the machine), an augmented reality tool allows the operator to execute tasks using a tablet or mobile phone, either with or without the guidance of the remote expert. The tablet is populated with augmented reality images of the equipment, updated online documentation, operational procedures, and even simple “how-to” videos for easily accomplishing the task at hand.
Human and Machine Intelligence, Working Together
The tools for successful digital transformation already exist. But tools aren’t always enough; you need champions for the tools. The Lexington plant has a small team of “geeks” that pilot and implement IoT solutions. Based on quick results, the team can decide whether scale successes.
One geek tested augmented reality’s ability to deliver targeted value to the local batch manufacturing process, looking to address unplanned downtime. Schneider’s Augmented Operator Advisor (AOA) was tested on an individual machine and significantly reduced mean time to repair. The positive experience resulted in quick adoption by the local team, making change management to digital transformation a lot smoother. There are now 16 machines equipped for AOA.
Other pilots have not been so successful. Autonomous vehicles, for example, were meant to reduce manual inventory movements and labor. There were some benefits, but not enough to scale the investment, so the pilot stopped — but luckily the pilot failed fast, before significant investments were made.
Turning Silos into an Integrated Data Infrastructure
In addition to individual pilots and “point solutions,” a cloud-based data integration tool can pool together all the siloed system data in a plant: from SAP to MES to SCADA and beyond — all the data in one common integrated data infrastructure.
Integrated data lets a plant see operational performance by specific time intervals. Tactically, plants can measure things like staff, breaks, and inventory. Once enough data is accumulated, machine learning can intelligently advise where to set data parameters to raise alerts of potential blockage and starvation events. That nuisance motor trip on a downstream process may seem like it is only a 15-minute issue, but the data could show the downstream impact is much higher. Mobile compatibility allows supervisors and managers to intervene proactively no matter where they are. Those types of real-time, actionable insights justify the investment.
Common integrated data infrastructure also drives better decision-making between plants. Manufacturers like Schneider have hundreds of plants across the world. The data may show a large differential in the amount of energy used at one plant’s paint line versus another. Understanding the differential helps plant managers make more informed and intelligent decisions for agile supply chains. It’s not quite a digital twin, but it’s close.
Integrating SAP with an MES and energy/resource management solutions is the “next step” manufacturers can take to create agile supply chains. It will allow manufacturers to track energy usage not only by cell and hour but also by product and unit. The implications are enormous for those scrutinizing their supply chains for sustainability and performance improvements.
Accelerating digital to build better industries in the wake of COVID-19
According to Schneider Electric CEO Jean-Pascal Tricoire and other executives, the COVID-19 crisis will transform the industry. But this is not a new transformation. It’s an extension and maturation of ongoing industrial digital transformation. In the pandemic era, remote monitoring, agile supply chains, and large-scale data integration are now more critical than ever — and they only happen with digitized plants.
Schneider’s Stephanie Byrd and Luke Durcan contributed to this article.