The real world impact of IoT, AR, and RPA technologies - sorting the cloud manufacturing possibilities with Plex

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed June 4, 2020
Connected manufacturing hype is everywhere. PowerPlex 2020 provided an opportunity for candid discussions on which technologies are impacting customers now.

Plex demo
(Screen capture by Cindy Jutras.)

At diginomica, we get plenty of PR "updates" from tech vendors chipping in to help fight Coronavirus, and mitigate its harsh economic tailwinds.

I'd argue we all need to do more and PR less, but some of these efforts are definitely heartening. One way SaaS vendors can chip in? By aggregating, analyzing and sharing customer data.

On the manufacturing side, I've covered how Plex is contributing to data charting, via CTO Jerry Foster and team: Making sense of the "dynamic drop in global manufacturing" - behind Plex's aggregated global manufacturing data.

At the recent PowerPlex 2020 virtual user event, Foster shared updated data:

Foster added more on the Plex blog, most recently on May 28: May Manufacturing Data Shows Signs of Rebound. Why did Foster see "cautious optimism" in the data? Automotive return-to-work is one driver.  Foster writes:

American manufacturers increased production by 84% between the week of April 13th to the week of May 18th. Leading this resurgence are automotive suppliers, likely based on the news that many U.S.-headquartered automakers such as Ford, GM, and Tesla (along with U.S.-based plants from companies including FCA) are reopening.

Readers know I get cynical when vendors push next-gen tech that customers are either indifferent to, or wary of, due to the chore of wading through hype. During PowerPlex, I tested the Plex team on this. My questions gave Plex opportunities to give the (virtual) analysts in attendance an excitable pitch on how tech like RPA and Augmented Reality is changing everything. But Plex had a different message.

Plex fleshes out industrial IoT use cases at PowerPlex

You get that from my colleague Phil Wainewright's PowerPlex piece, PowerPlex 2020 - IoT pilot shaves costs in metal fabrication at MPI. We've heard plenty of platitudes about the Industrial IoT. Plex customer MPI shows how IoT can be eminently practical, tying sensor data directly into cloud systems of record, and into a data/analytics platform as well.

The MPI project includes infra-red sensors at the furnace to track the edges of the belt. A Kepware server feeds that data into Plex IoT. That data populates a dashboard, providing visual alerts for exception handling. Those can be pushed to users via email or cell phone alerts. Phil quotes MPI's Bob Bierwagen:

Being able to push that out to email or to cell phones that our maintenance or operations people can see in real-time is really an exciting place to be for us.

You might be thinking, "Great, more pings on my cell phone." But these alerts have big financial ramifications. Bierwagen again:

When you've got a furnace at 1800 degrees, it can take 24 to 36 hours to cool. So unplanned downtime was not a good thing for us. We identified that we could save potentially three or four occurrences of this a year if we had better control.

This type of project is, of course, the fruits of Plex's DATTUS acquisition. Plex has managed to keep former DATTUS CEO Anurag Garg on board as the VP and Head of Analytics & Internet of Things (IoT). Two years later, the ties between Plex cloud manufacturing, IoT and analytics are considerably more mature. Extending into IoT now looks like a viable use case for customers to explore, not a hypothetical future roadmap item. Garg elaborated on this in Advice for the pragmatic manufacturer in a world of IIoT hype. Garg has more diginomica pieces coming which will flesh that out further.

Why Plex is emphasizing RPA for manufacturers

One of the intriguing news stories of PowerPlex 2020 involved their partnership with RPA provider Thirdware. This came out around the time I was puncturing RPA hype balloons in Robotic process automation rides the Coronavirus hype cycle - but where exactly are the use cases?

I don't actually have a problem with RPA, especially now, with remote work adding pressure to automate on-site processes. As I wrote:

RPA tech is mature enough now: you don't get to blame the tech if your project goes south. But even a valid RPA use case can prove problematic in execution.

In my view, that's one reason Plex involved Thirdware: to make sure they have an experienced partner to get these projects right. The press release included a good scenario:

Plex customer Stant Corporation, a tier-1 automotive supplier of thermal and vapor management parts, implemented RPA to manage its invoice delivery. Prior to RPA, the process of invoice matching was a labor-intensive and error-prone process, spread across multiple technology solutions. With the help of a bot on the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform, Stant has been able to reduce its invoice backlog from three weeks to four days, with 100% data entry accuracy.

I just came off of a talk with several CIOs who were disillusioned with RPA overhype. They were struggling to keep their bots functional as dependent software got updated. In other words: tedious testing and the issue of RPA lifecyle management. Customers need to have the right skills and expectations lined up.

During the analyst Q/A, Plex CEO Bill Berutti responded to my concerns:

One of the weaknesses of RPA is that it relies on the user interface. If there's a change it can break, right? One of the things we talked to Thirdware about is: as a partner, they get access to our API library as well. So they can actually do a blend of UI and direct calls into Plex, which wouldn't be dependent on the UI. That was an opportunity they were very interested in - and our customers could do that, too. That would help stabilize it.

Augmented reality, predictive maintenance, and manufacturing priorities

I'm not a big virtual reality guy, but I do see industrial use cases for augmented reality (AR). Given that the pandemic travel limitations placed new restrictions on the specialists tasked with fixing broken plant equipment, I wondered if this was an important adoption shift for AR. Properly used, AR could allow a less experienced, on-site tech to fix specialized equipment, with expert remote guidance. Has Plex seen an AR demand surge from customers? Not exactly. Plex CTO Jerry Foster answered:

With more smaller manufacturers, we are seeing some of our customers start to use AR for more remote troubleshooting, and troubleshooting on the shop floor, but I think it's still a hard sell, due to the cost of the devices. You have to manage them, and you might not have the IT department to handle it... We've seen some customers get their foot in the water there, but not as mass scale.

But if I was off on AR adoption, the core issue - keeping those big honking shop floor machines up and running - does take on new urgency. When your machines go down, getting the right expert on-site is tougher than ever before. When I asked about predictive maintenance, Garg responded:

Most manufacturers are not even operating at capacity. So the argument that you know, "You could use [IoT] to increase capacity" doesn't quite resonate. Everyone is focused on how do you manage costs; how do you impact your bottom line? So absolutely, a focus on predictive maintenance, a focus on reducing plant maintenance expense, a focus on empowering your team to be able to do more, without having to be on site.

Having historical data in one place - that's what manufacturers care about. So that message, of course, is resonating for those manufacturers that are beginning to come back online, and starting to think about: what does the next phase look like?

My take

I have no patience right now for "This shiny tech can help us rebound from COVID" overhype; I've ducked out on virtual event "keynotes" for that reason. But a candid discussion on which technologies customers are adopting right now, and why or why not? Count me in.

Yes, I didn't address the elephant question in the room for Plex watchers: has a cloud approach to manufacturing software paid off for existing customers, and is it driving demand? That's because Phil Wainewright covered that off in PowerPlex 2020 - How the cloud helps manufacturers respond to COVID-19.

During our virtual sessions, we also discussed other Plex customer interests, from low code functionality (appealing to those without significant IT staff) to 3D printing (still on the horizon for product integration, but on Plex's radar). One challenge for SaaS-focused companies? The impact of computing on the edge, especially on industrial devices that must have offline abilities, while adhering to cloud data practices. When uptime is critical, and on-site staff is cut back, "How far do we go to the edge" is a question SaaS providers must answer, and Plex is clearly thinking about it. Data connectivity with field devices is not an issue for Plex, but questions like buffering, backing up device data logs, and maintaining localized dashboards are all issues Plex will be expected to have effective answers for.

What does a cloud-native, digital edge solution for manufacturers look like? And how can a cloud manufacturing provider like Plex push back against so-called "edge" manufacturing solutions that are really  just legacy manufacturing vendors doing on-premise marketing spin? Garg made the point that customers are the arbiters for where this edge discussion should go - as opposed to intellectual debates over the definition of "edge." That ethos tends to guide Plex's product decisions - hopefully that will be the case here as well.

Image credit - Screen capture of Plex CTO Jerry Foster demonstrating brain scan technology at PowerPlex 2020 by Cindy Jutras.

Disclosure - At time of writing, Plex is a premier partner of diginomica.