By Patrick Weber, MESA International Technical and Education Committee member and MESA-Recognized Practitioner
Pizza party at your house, I went just to check it out
Nineteen extra larges, what a shame, no one came
“A Complicated Song” by Weird Al Yankovic
Let’s face it: the promises of Smart Manufacturing just aren’t being realized by the majority of manufacturing organizations. For the most part we aren’t seeing the improved productivity, optimized production, higher levels of safety, enhanced security, accelerated decision-making, reduced regulatory effort, or faster market response times that current technology enables. Yet the trade publications continue to trumpet the coming revolution; it’s not hard to understand why many consider it to be all marketing hype by vendors who want to sell products.
The benefits of Smart Manufacturing are not phantasms – they are very real. Many large manufacturers in automotive, food & beverage, consumer goods, aerospace, and other industry sectors can testify to their success implementing these techniques. But a vast majority of enterprises are small to medium-sized businesses (SMB), and they perceive significant barriers to applying new technologies which some of their larger contemporaries have resources to overcome.
It isn’t unusual to find an organization with less than 100 employees that has no formal IT group. The application support they require is provided by third parties and knowledgeable internal staff. You’ll hear things like “Dave is our IT department” or “Mike is just a wiz with Excel”. These organizations are able to function successfully with IT point solutions, using applications like spreadsheets and personal databases to integrate point solutions into an end-to-end system. Even though it is inefficient, this unfettered pragmatism works well enough to enable them to compete in the marketplace.
Just as with IT, many smaller manufacturers also have no formal automation group. They rely on their machine builders and system integrators to provide PLC/PAC programming, SCADA systems, and other operational technology. You won’t usually find things like ISA88, PLCOpen, or B2MML specified by these companies. Again, pragmatism is the key driver in the requirements presented to third-party solution providers. If you ask them what standards they demand in the systems in which they invest, the response is typically “whatever the integrator decides is necessary”. Why would system integrators adopt ISA/IEC/ISO automation standards if their clients aren’t insisting they be used?
So here’s the situation in which most manufacturers (over 95% of all manufacturers are SMBs) find themselves: IT investments that were not strategically managed and legacy automation systems that were built to no consistent standards. (SMB’s shouldn’t get too distressed by this statement – many of your larger competitors are in the same boat in spite of having full-fledged IT and Automation departments). Now read the stories of Smart Manufacturing through the eyes of an engineer or manager in one of these companies. Connected Enterprise? IT/OT Convergence? Service-oriented architecture? Industrial Internet of Things? None of these seem applicable to their day-to-day operations. Is it any wonder the usual response is “You can’t get there from here”?
SMB’s have one great advantage over larger manufacturers: they can be extremely agile. What may be at first perceived as a barrier may in fact be turned to a competitive advantage – with the proper direction. Larger companies have a great deal more inertia than smaller ones: more machines, more legacy, and more politics. SMBs can quickly navigate around impediments if the benefits justify the effort. What’s missing from the big picture though is a discussion of the “on-ramp” for SMBs – how do they engage with the technologies which enable Smart Manufacturing – given their current state, competitive position, and available resources?
Smart Manufacturing initiatives have the support of governments worldwide, are discussed by multiple industry organizations, and are finding their way into the curricula of universities globally. But unless small-to-medium sized manufacturers figure out how to join the party, there will be a lot of leftover pizza.