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Three game-changers manufacturers never expected from the cloud

Jim Shepherd Profile picture for user Jim Shepherd June 28, 2015
Sure, cloud is faster, cheaper, better. It's also helped manufacturers improve quality, boost output and go real-time, writes Plex Systems' Jim Shepherd

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Jim Shepherd, Plex Systems

The cloud is rapidly becoming the new standard for enterprise software. Organizations are moving their most important business processes beyond their own four walls en masse. The simplest way to quantify this is in terms of business software startups: essentially 100 percent of new enterprise technology companies are delivering solutions in the cloud.

Customers are motivated by the promise of minimizing capital expenditures, streamlining IT complexity, and increasing access to key data. And the cloud is now proven to be both more cost efficient and more reliable than internal datacenters.

Manufacturers are no exception in this shift. They relish the ability to share design information between customers and suppliers through a browser. To monitor their production equipment around the globe. And to download the latest supply and demand information in seconds. Driving down costs is a given.

What they didn’t realize was that the cloud would also help them improve product quality, boost output without building new factories, and get real-time notifications and alerts delivered to the palms of their hands. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

#1: Advancing product quality

When it comes to improving product quality, the cloud hasn't just helped manufacturers deliver products better, faster and cheaper — it has changed the entire product quality paradigm.

Manufacturers have traditionally taken a reactive approach to product quality, gathering and analyzing huge volumes of data after production in the hopes of identifying the causes of product defects. Today, manufacturers are using the data they store in the cloud to prevent production mistakes from happening in the first place.

When a line worker is about to begin production, this means he’ll have to scan his ID card, which holds data on his training and qualifications to perform the assembly. He’ll have to scan the container of materials to verify that he’s using the right stuff. He’ll need to scan his tools to make sure they’re appropriate for the job. He’ll have to scan his measurement instruments to make sure they have been calibrated recently.

If any of these variables are at odds with the data stored in the cloud, the assembly line will simply shut down.

The same is true for tooling. If a machine needs maintenance or a tool needs calibration, the cloud knows it. Those corners that were easy to cut in the past are gone. In their place is a multiplexed communications fabric that directs, monitors, and stores data on activity in real time.

This preventive approach has probably eliminated more costly and embarrassing product recalls than we’ll ever know. For large manufacturers, that’s great for the bottom line. For smaller manufacturers, it can mean the difference between survival and bankruptcy. And efficiency with quality is possible. Analytics can help tune processes, materials handling, and machine utilization to maximize productivity while minimizing maintenance.

The achievements of the connected manufacturer are real and quantifiable today. At Plex, we recently ran a survey of more than 130 manufacturers to find out about the tools and technologies they’re using. Tapping into the cloud is already helping 61 percent of them improve product quality. More than three-quarters of them believe cloud technologies will help them increase plant or enterprise integration, and 73 percent plan to enhance their quality programs in the cloud. Customers continue to tell us that being able to manage all their shop floor resources in the cloud enhances just about every aspect of their manufacturing operations.

#2: Better decisions with big data

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Today, every piece of material, every instrument, and every tool has an electronic identity. For many Plex customers, virtually every component on the shop floor — including torque wrenches, calipers, and CNC machines — is now connected to an IP fabric. Some of these implements are actively talking to each other via the Internet. Other items are being scanned by an operator as they move along the assembly line. As a result, the manufacturing cloud knows where everything is at all times. That means every participant in the supply chain can understand where materials, parts, and finished goods are in the process. Right now.

When a new crate of raw materials arrives at the loading dock, this information is recorded and compared to what was supposed to happen. Is the shipment 45 minutes late? The production schedule will be adjusted accordingly. Is this the wrong material? A procurement manager will receive an alert to contact the supplier and return the shipment before it is even opened (and before there’s any danger of parts being made with the wrong materials).

Having easy access to data in the cloud has done more than just help manufacturers prevent product defects. It is also helping them tighten manufacturing processes and increase overall plant productivity. In fact, 66 percent of our survey participants have seen improvements in plant productivity since they went to the cloud, and 74 percent report better process integration. Organizations are doing everything from reviewing and redesigning manufacturing processes to moving equipment based on real-time manufacturing data. And on a macro level, manufacturers are looking at metrics such as cost versus speed of delivery when serving customers a common product from multiple plants.

Mind you, manufacturers aren’t just printing out reports and sharing them in a boardroom. Thanks to the cloud, they’re now using a broad set of tools to capture, analyze, and distribute data. They’re delivering mobile alerts to employees and customers. They’re monitoring plant performance in real time. They’re performing sophisticated manufacturing and financial analytics, then making the results available in intuitive browser-based dashboards.

The quest for greater productivity has led to profound changes in the types of jobs manufacturers typically offer. It wasn’t that long ago that many workers would spend their entire 8-hour shift putting Part A in Slot B. Today, many of the repetitive tasks are performed by machines. New jobs are technical: overseeing manufacturing processes, making real-time decisions to maximize efficiency, and proactive quality management of the whole operation. These jobs are turning data into information and decisions that will support quality, efficiency — and, ultimately, customer satisfaction.

#3: Ready for wearables

Plex Google Glass

The most advanced shop floors have been lined with computers for 20 years or more. But by moving vast amounts of data to the cloud, manufacturers have made it possible for operators and executives to get real-time updates on any device, anywhere, anytime. There’s no longer a need to go into the office to address a problem. It can be done with a few clicks on a tablet or smartphone.

Among our survey participants, 81% say the cloud has improved their mobile access to data. Plex customers appreciate that their business data and key business tools are now just a username and password away. Perhaps the best part is that they don’t need to deploy new infrastructure to take advantage — and in many cases, their employees can use their own (appropriately secured) mobile devices to jump on the network.

Much of this mobile communication is happening through supplier and customer portals. Rather than waiting for their partners and customers to call them with questions, manufacturers are making production updates, shipping notifications, and even detailed engineering specs available online through portals.

That means customers and suppliers can serve themselves. It means manufacturers can send supply and demand signals that help suppliers proactively meet their needs. It means that even the smallest suppliers that don’t use Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) can stay just as informed as their larger competitors.

And because these portals are accessible from any web-enabled device, it means the productivity never has to stop.

The innovation isn’t stopping, either. Many manufacturers, suppliers, and customers aren’t even logging onto mobile devices anymore — they’re setting up their portals to alert them with only the information they need most. And they’re receiving this data on smart watches, Google Glass, and other wearables.

In other words, data from throughout the supply chain is such a part of our lives that we actually wear it. The potential time savings and productivity enhancements here boggle the mind.

In the next installment of this series, Plex VP of development Jason Prater will talk more about mobile advances like wearables, and how they’re changing everything about the way the manufacturing floor operates.

Image credits: Plex Systems.

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