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On the manufacturing shop floor, it's one step forward, two back for IoT

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright November 19, 2017
A pilot of Google Glass at automotive seat maker Fisher Dynamics shows the potential and limits of wearables and IoT on the manufacturing shop floor

Fisher Dynamics shop floor welding station
A welding station at Fisher Dynamics

For those who dismiss wearables and IoT as digital fads with no possible relevance to an industry as physical as manufacturing, Fisher Dynamics offers something of a counterpoint. But the automotive seat maker’s experience of testing out these emerging technologies on its factory shop floor also demonstrates their bumpy progress on the path to meaningful adoption.

Fisher Dynamics is no stranger to the Industrial Internet. It has been connecting devices in its factories to software in the cloud for many years, as Fisher's director of IT Scott Tollafield explained to Den Howlett in a video interview two years ago. Last week I got an update during a visit arranged for analysts by manufacturing cloud application vendor Plex. The manufacturer has been a Plex customer since 2013.

Fisher Dynamics makes reclining seat mechanisms and other products that go into millions of cars, trucks and SUVs produced each year by the world’s automotive industry. Headquartered in St Clair Shores, Michigan, it has plants in the Detroit area and elsewhere in North America, as well as a fast-growing presence in China. The company is keen to wring as much utility out of the shop floor data it’s collecting and storing in the cloud, even if some experiments don’t work out, says Al Fisher, Chairman of Fisher & Co, the family firm that owns the business:

For us it’s fun to keep pushing all these technologies. If we try ten, maybe one’ll work.

Cloud MES and IoT

The company works closely with Plex, whose cloud-native software tracks and records every aspect of Fisher’s shop floor operations. Plex calls itself a cloud ERP vendor — and many of its customers do indeed run financials, HCM and supply chain on its platform, rather than deal with multiple vendors. But its core offering is a manufacturing execution system (MES) which customers use to manage and track the movement of parts and materials through the manufacturing process on the shop floor.

At Fisher, a screen at each workstation, whether it be a metal press, a robotic welding rig, a laser cutting machine or an assembly station, shows the rate of progress and whether it’s ahead or behind progress. All of this equipment is connected to the cloud MES. Each action, whether it’s each one of 300 welds on a seat or the torque applied to each screw fastened into an assembly, is recorded and serialized. Every movement of work in progress stock is scanned in and out from one location to the next.

Recording all of this data in the cloud MES as items move through the factory floor means that Fisher can verify quality standards to its customers, whether during routine audits or when they have a question about a shipment later on. With everything recorded digitally, it's easy to demonstrate compliance when customers carry out routine quality audit visits.

Google Glass and alternatives

In 2013, Fisher Dynamics started piloting the use of Google Glass for hands-free stock management. Coupled with a pointing device worn as a ring on the hand, warehouse staff could point to any box and see barcode data about its contents displayed on their Google Glass. This proved to be a big time saver when receiving or moving goods, and the company was keen to roll it out more widely, says Tollafield.

But just as Plex was getting ready to move its support for the device from pilot into production, Google discontinued Glass. Plex scoured the market for an alternative, but nothing else at the time had the right set of specifications, explains CTO Jerry Foster.

Plex has continued its search for alternatives although it has not worked with Google parent Alphabet's secretive Enterprise Edition of Glass, which has been piloted by a select band of Google enterprise customers. Instead, Plex has been investigating the realwear hmt-1 head-mounted tablet, which incorporates a micro display and an audio chip that can recognize voice commands amidst the loud background noise that's common in industrial environments.

Data on the manufacturing shop floor

The new headset hasn't yet been tried at Fisher Dynamics. The person who led the Google Glass trial has moved on, so someone else on the IT team would have to pick up the mantle. Then there's the matter of finding a good time to run a pilot and then train up staff for a wider roll-out.

But the principle of working with data through voice commands is one that Al Fisher endorses. He wants it to be much easier for shop floor workers to access data in a useful way.

When can I just talk to my terminal and get my data back? ... Our challenge is a user friendly interface for our people on the shop floor.

Currently, the data that's served up to them is too constrained to predetermined purposes. He'd like them to have the autonomy to ask questions and come up with creative solutions:

Data has got to make us better. Then it has a purpose.

My take

The enthusiasm at Fisher to try out new technologies is shared by many Plex customers, but the experience with Google Glass demonstrates many of the obstacles that must be overcome before a pilot can turn into a permanent addition to established working practices.

Having the product disappear by the time you've finished the pilot is frustrating, but it's an occupational hazard when working with emerging technologies. And of course when it's emergent there's no standardization, so finding a substitute with the same functionality as the original device can be challenging.

All this uncertainty doesn't sit well with an industrial environment, where processes have to be consistent and nothing can be introduced without rigorous training to maintain quality and safety standards.

While it looks as though wearables will be welcome on the factory floor at some point in the future, it's still early days in the development of suitable technologies and form factors. That means there will be quite a few more pilots before more serious deployments start rolling out. All credit to Plex and its customers for pushing the envelope here and understanding both the potential and the limitations of the current state-of-the-art in IoT and wearables.

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