Digitization in manufacturing has focused on making simpler, more transparent processes that help shops boost machine availability and utilization, with the ultimate goal of increased productivity. However, it plays another, equally important role: catering to a future generation of “digital-native” decision makers.
This tech-savvy group will expect to see touch screens with slick, streamlined user interfaces. But tomorrow’s manufacturing equipment must go beyond simply updating the look and feel of machine controls. To truly meet the needs of the next generation of manufacturing professionals, OEMs must provide the digital connectivity capabilities necessary for not only process monitoring and optimization but also accessing databases of stored information, cloud computing and digital simulations.
Members of the future generation of manufacturers love to “Google” things they don’t know. In a manufacturing environment, this means they will rely more heavily on the vast amounts of experience and knowhow collected in databases developed (and continuously developing) as a result of digital connectivity. Collected data that, in a sense, allows them to avoid reinventing the wheel every time they optimize a machine, process or production environment.
This shift away from individual expertise and toward extensive databases takes the guesswork out of complex processes, such as grinding, and makes them easier—a process that has been ongoing throughout the history of manufacturing. In the early days, a shop’s success depended entirely on the skills, intelligence and knowhow of experienced artisans. But with the advent of numerical control, computerization and automation, far more could be accomplished with less burden on human skills. And as we move toward an ever-more-connected future, modern equipment removes even more of the human factor from the manufacturing productivity, efficiency and accuracy equation.
The end result of the accumulation of past experience made possible by digital connectivity is that the machinists of today and tomorrow are more productive and capable than ever before. For example, with remote devices, they can monitor the current status of machines from anywhere and at any time via smartphone apps. These 24/7 monitoring services give valuable insight and production transparency in terms of machine runtimes and auxiliary times, production quantities or malfunction times—all in real time.
From the front office, digital solutions and services from OEMs provide shops with digital command centers from which they can manage linked machines and equipment, as well as the digital natives who have decades of practice overseeing complex systems from their computers and phones. These digital hubs also typically link back to the OEMs for accessing other services and support, data and software. Many maintenance calls can now be performed online, and shops can get back up and running faster.
Indeed, on the digitally connected shop floor, subscription-based software is replacing the licenses of old. Gone are the days of perpetual licenses, boxed products and disc-based installers. The digital natives won’t want to pay for every operating system or software update for manufacturing equipment. They expect OEM suppliers will provide software platforms that give them exceptional flexibility, lower upfront costs and reduced lifetime costs, as well as the ability to start or stop subscriptions to match changing needs. And all this must be accompanied by truly outstanding service. After all, digital natives have come to expect that SaaS offerings will take the service just as seriously as the software.
Compared with other industry sectors, manufacturing still remains in the initial stages of digital connectivity, data collection and analysis. While common interface platforms like OPC UA or MTConnect are the first step, many of them are still relatively new by the standards of more technologically advanced sectors. But if manufacturers hope to find new hires among the incoming generation of digital natives, they—and the OEMs they supply—must step up their digital connectivity game.
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