A View from the Road:  What do our clients say?

I’ve been traveling the past 3 weeks, joining our Roadshow Team, and meeting up with clients again during our fall Brew Tour event. I felt a strangeness at first, like warming up the car on a cold morning, knowing that that activities like this are a return to normal, while at the same time acknowledging the magnitude of the pause the pandemic placed on our everyday lives for the past 18 months!  And while the pause impacted our ability to meet in person, it became clear from my conversations that the pandemic had a nearly opposite effect on the pace innovation in our industry.

So, still relishing in the glow of live, spontaneous interactions, I thought for my last blog of the year, I’d take a few minutes to list the top 5 Manufacturing Initiatives I heard from our clients in 2021.  So, in no particular order, here they are:

1.  Closing more of the gap between business systems and the plant floor.

Specifically, I am referring to ERP, Scheduling and MES systems where a connection to the equipment can be used to fix efficiency leaks in a broad range of operational areas – scheduling, tracking work order completion, actual yield, scrap, waste and actual raw material consumption.  We’ve known about the potential that exists here for years, but what has held companies back is a concern about the complexity, especially if adopting a widescale, monolithic Manufacturing Execution System. The new modular approach is based on tools that offer easier configuration and flexibility.   Even with in the same company, no two plants are the same.  So, companies have changed their requirements to tools that are lighter weight and designed to solve specific problems, integrate silos and easily tailor to use cases and interfaces that will change from plant to plant or even across processes over time.  Manufacturers continue to grow via acquisition at a record pace and middleware needs to become a tool that enables digitization of processes.  True architectural flexibility lends itself to deployment across many disparate systems, what we often call a system of systems approach.

DON’T MISS this upcoming Webcast:  Handling supply chain variability through advanced planning & scheduling and MES.  Register Here.

2.  Operational Control Centers.

Again, these initiatives are called many things.  But think of these as a “hyper-visory” operations centers that can pull information from multiple sites and systems into a corporate hub that plays host to a small, centralized team of specialists.  The advantage is that the team can interact to solve challenging problems quickly, especially for remote operations where the ability to staff people with these skills is not an option and having specialists travel between sites can cost money in both travel and delays.   I first saw this idea six or seven years ago at a Wonderware User Conference, when an executive from Rio Tinto presented a keynote on their “Factory of the Future” initiative. At the time, the company was struggling to attract new talent to work at remote operational sites.  So, they launched Operations Centers that acted as a high tech, problem-solving, nerve-center in popular urban areas that attracted younger talent and   monitored and assisted remote sites in real-time.   It was one of those cool ideas that I thought was innovative but not something that might go mainstream.  But, again, as the pandemic shutdown travel and has pushed digital initiatives, the adoption of digital control hubs has gained traction and I expect more companies to follow suit.

If this interest you, watch this recent  Webcast on Operational Control Centers and the enabling of REAL-TIME OPERATIONAL PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT. Watch Here

3. The widescale adoption of some type of IOT (Internet of Things) program.

Interestingly, few clients call it IOT, but I’m going to use the popular media term because it’s a convenient way to categorize all the of the projects I heard about.   Beginning in 2020 and accelerating this past year, there has been a groundswell of effort to deploy solutions that reach out across an organization to collect and provide data to help run operations better.   The applications are too numerous to list here, but examples I heard were across all industries. The “aha” moment from many of these was not necessarily the data, but rather the groundswell of investment companies have made to enable the data collection. Whether that was upgrading controls, networks, servers, firewalls or historians, where these requests seemingly stalled pre-pandemic, that trend has reversed, and companies are prioritizing Capex spending to create a modern IT manufacturing operation.   This has been a seismic tipping point and companies not prioritizing IOT programs in their corporate strategy are behind and likely at a competitive disadvantage to those that are.

4. “Democratizing” process data.

Almost all industrial companies are aware of the data that flows through their operations.  Many have excellent use cases or hypotheses on how this data can help plug efficiency leaks.   But leading up to the pandemic, it still appeared that initiatives to tap into this data were often deprioritized and underfunded. The pandemic was the beginning of a major reversal in how companies ranked these initiatives, due to the urgent need to engineer new ways to keep plants operational and safe as the pandemic spread.  And since then, bolstered by the success of enhanced tools that help their associates perform better, most companies have kept the foot on the accelerator and continued to expand their digital transformation playbook.

5.  Artificial Intelligence or Predictive Analytics programs.

If there was one use-case category that I heard most frequently, it was the application of artificial intelligence to analyze data to maximize asset or equipment utilization.  To be fair, this is just one of the business hypotheses that I mentioned above but based on the number of times I’ve heard it, it’s clear that companies rank this at the top of the beneficial outcomes and associated potential cost savings for their business.  The logic is simple, and the implementation costs are fairly low.  Process data related to high usage or constrained assets is logged and monitored by AI which can flag abnormalities and bring these to the attention of humans who can then intervene before a failure happens.

This idea has accelerated further due to the unanticipated loss of experienced workers and the scarcity of talent available to replace them.   I heard many clients lament that it was already hard to attract new, young talent to manufacturing, but post-pandemic, it’s become even more difficult.  STEM graduates are in high demand and are looking at exciting professional opportunities at high tech companies, not viewing manufacturing as attractively.   I talked to several companies that have spent money on strategic initiatives to attract future hires over classic big technology firms.  This is a perfect use case to attract new, younger talent to solve challenging real-life engineering scenarios with the application of state-of-the-art technology

As, I look forward to 2022, I know we at InSource are well positioned to assist clients with solutions to solve these challenges and continue to change the face of manufacturing. One of the cool things about putting together the roadshow, is the opportunity to showcase some of these leading-edge solutions. In case you missed it, please visit our Brew Tour On Demand, to hear more about the initiatives, like the ones above,  that are shaping modern manufacturing.