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IFS to acquire Poka - there is no Industry 4.0 without the connected worker

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 28, 2023
IFS just announced the acquisition of Poka, a connected worker platform. But connected workers aren't for the factories of the future. It's about today's demand for skills, robotics and data - with generative AI on deck.

Drew Johnson of KLN Family Brands at IFS Connect
(Drew Johnson of KLN at IFS Connect)

After the barrage of spring events, I was looking forward to a July 4 US slowdown. Well, I don't think IFS got the memo.

Less than a week after I got back from IFS Connect, IFS announced the acquisition of Poka - and its connected worker platform. Why the move?

Via email, my colleague Phil Wainewright framed this news in the context of productivity vendors, and their historical limitations:

Productivity vendors are eager to reach the armies of what they typically call 'frontline' workers who have not been well served by traditional desktop apps because they spend most or all of their working lives on their feet (another perhaps better term is 'deskless'). Microsoft with Teams and Meta with Workplace in particular. But often with limited success, in part because of their text-based origins, and mostly because these vendors have little appreciation of the real needs in these various workforces.

But IFS believes it is much better positioned to addresses the needs of connected workers. As IFS CEO Darren Roos said in the Poka acquisition news release, this is about the labor challenge facing IFS customers, and the impact a "connected" worker can have:

With a potential manufacturing skills gap in the U.S. alone which could result in 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030, closing this gap, it is as much a technology need as it is a change management and worker empowerment need. Improving access to information and knowledge means workers can become part of an integrated continuous improvement cycle.

IFS customers - talent is an Industry 4.0 issue

My customer interviews at IFS connect reinforced this skills theme. A huge part of IFS customers' interest in AI goes back to making more out of their human workers, and doing more with less. "Connected manufacturing" isn't an Industry 4.0 brochure - it's a labor necessity. In my IFS Connect wrap piece, I wrote about CDF Corporation's robotics collaboration with IFS. CIO Alex Ivkovic noted the cost savings, but addressing the human talent shortfall is the biggest story:

We expect to save over $1.5 million per year. In addition, every employee affected will be retasked into higher skilled positions, greatly helping us with our labor shortage.

Connected manufacturing is not about automating plants to get rid of talent. It's about finding and keeping it. Ivkovic added:

It took me six months to find a programmer for my SCADA system - and I was looking hard.

Ivkovic went on to tell me that in all of their robotics projects, only one person left the company. But to the point of IFS' Poka acquisition, the nature of the jobs has changed: from repetitive work to "connected" work. Ivkovic explained one robotics project that replaced repetitive work:

 All they did, all day, was take these pouches put a rubber band on and put them in a bin... What would you rather do, pick these things all day long? Or pull a cart with material? Or would you rather learn how to operate a machine?

AI needs shop floor data

With generative AI on the horizon, IFS customers are doing two things: connecting their workers, and connecting their machines. You're not going to have effective AI if your shop floor is a data black hole. IFS customer KLN Family Brands is a good example. As KLN Family Brands' Drew Johnson told me, they plan to partner with IFS on AI-based initiatives. But if you don't have sensors on your most important shop floor equipment, how can AI help with predictive maintenance? As Johnson told me:

I mentioned our MES and SCADA project. That'll give us a lot of data points into our equipment, as far as our extruders and different manufacturing equipment.

During the keynote, IFS previewed upcoming "asset health" functionality. That resonated with Johnson's team:

One thing we liked is that we can feed that data in, and the AI will say, 'Hey, something doesn't look right here' - once it starts to recognize what's good and what's bad for that equipment. That will help us be a lot more proactive, as far as keeping our equipment running.

 For KLN Family Brands, connected machines and workers are part of the same "continuous improvement" goal:

We've rolled out a continuous improvement initiative in the last year or so. Especially being able to prevent downtime from our equipment, that'll be a huge bonus for us.

For me, one of the big themes of spring events is seeing how hypothetical AI talk can obscure notable projects. Generative AI is coming, but forward-thinking customers are doing some darn cool stuff now. Johnson got my attention when he said, matter-of-factly:

We're made up of Kenny's Candy, Tuffy's Pet Foods, and Tuffy's Pet Treats. We support all three of those sites. There's a lot of IFS integration; we have a lot of custom objects, custom events. But then we also take some of that data out, and we build our own in-house applications.

Hold up - you build your own in-house apps with IFS data?

Inside of IFS, we do all of our reporting, quick reports, business reports, all that kind of stuff. But we also pull that data out, and have our own applications where we can blend that IFS data, along with some of our other manufacturing data. We can pull information off of our PLCs, all of our manufacturing equipment, and blend that together.

But with AI on the horizon, a more integrated data solution will be in order:

We're in the middle of that SCADA MES project right now. We're looking to gather some of that data from the machines, and hopefully get that all into IFS, and make use of some of the AI and the other features that are coming in IFS Cloud.

The wrap - on IFS Cloud, and what's next

In my last IFS Connect piece, I went into the nuances of IFS Cloud, and how IFS customers are reacting. KLN Family Brands is another IFS customer with IFS Cloud on the forward agenda. Yes, AI is one of the innovation areas Johnson is looking forward to. But since KLN went live on IFS four years ago, they have made a goal to stay on current releases. Johnson's team has their reasons; cybersecurity is high on that list.

We really just try to stay up to date as functionality and features, but also the security portion of it. Cybersecurity is a big focus of ours right now and assurance, keeping all of our apps up to date. We really enjoy our partnership with IFS, and the support we get is important to us too. So we want to make sure that we're staying up to date with everything, so that if we do call in, we're not a full version behind.

Those who think IFS will now stand pat, think again. I don't think IFS is done bolstering its product line. Wainewright passed along this preview of coming attractions with CEO Darren Roos, via their sit down in Birmingham:

Our investors are bought into a five year plan. We have a plan through 2028 that maps out exactly what we're doing and how we're doing it. Our investors have a ton of capital so we can continue to make acquisitions that make strategic sense. We have three deals on the go at the moment, all of which are highly complementary and synergistic with what we already do.

And that's great for our customers too, because it means that we can bring new capabilities to our customers. And we'll do the work on the integration; we'll do the work on the process automation. They're not going to have to figure out how they integrate separately. And again, it stays very focused on the industries and the sector that we're in, we're not doing anything outside of those.

Perhaps I shouldn't settle into my summer hammock just yet.

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