For the last few years, many of us in the manufacturing automation field have expressed the need to “build bridges to everywhere” within the context of Industry 4.0. It is a way to describe the capability and the goal of connecting shop floor resources, for example single machines with pallet pools, machines with robotic machine tending, and multi-machine cells and FMSs.
Today these bridges are even more critical, and the horizon has expanded beyond shop floor connectivity. The focus is shifting to creating transparency and consistent execution of production in manufacturing networks, or ecosystems.
Although our conversations are evolving to include even greater synchronization in a global supply chain, there is still work to be done at the basic level of connectivity. All too often still, manufacturing solutions—whether automated or not—are built as “islands” and not linked into the network of resources. This includes functions such as deburring and parts washing. The good news is now even manual duties can be networked, monitored, and tracked.
The benefits of connecting everything first inside the factory floor are obvious; the systems create and allow the visibility of consistent data that can be used for continuous improvement. All operations can be automatically measured and managed in a much more efficient way. This capability is the prerequisite for a company to be part of an ecosystem.
So how can we get there? The big picture is all about change of view: instead of looking at the factory floor as a collection of single investments with a limited budget, the floor should be looked at as an interconnected system where true value is created through controlling assets flexibly. The details are in interfaces and APIs, horizontally and vertically, and creating well-defined roles and tasks between the ERP, the MOM, the MES, the SCADA and the HMI (human/machine interface).
Creating connectivity on the factory floor is complex, yet simple in one important way: within the walls of a single company there is generally trust that any piece of information is secure and will not be misused. The data and materials that are flowing in the system are handled at and by the company itself. Conversely, in a diverse network, or ecosystem, there could be competing business interests in the value chain. For example, order-related data should be shared within the network openly, and there would be a natural hesitance to do that. However, creating trust is vital to successful networked operations in ecosystems that enable sharing of resources and knowledge. Ecosystems create an environment for companies to learn, apply what they learn, and grow.
To advance ecosystem participation, I strongly urge everyone to solve the “easy” part of this equation—the shop floor connectivity piece—since it is solvable. Expand the view of the business model and pay close attention to interfaces and APIs. Second, learn about initiatives such as the Industrial Data Space Association (IDSA). This group creates technologies and processes to help create trust in multi-party manufacturing networks. As stated on its website, “IDSA defines a reference architecture, which supports sovereign exchange and sharing of data between partners independent from their size and financial power.” It also defines different roles of business transaction partners, such as data provider, data user, and data broker.
The new concept of manufacturing ecosystems is challenging; it will require a significant mind-set adjustment. It is the inevitable next step up to reach greater manufacturing productivity and deliver more value to customers.
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