Connected manufacturing

Shashank BindalThe manufacturing industry is going through another revolution. After more than 200 years of machine-centric manufacturing, the industry is moving into data-centric manufacturing. This upcoming change means the role of IT in a manufacturing organization, particularly industrial manufacturing, will no longer be the same.

Currently, IT primarily supports enterprise systems and the associated IT infrastructure. Despite the continuous innovation and automation in IT operations, the IT teams mainly bring behind the scenes support and keep the enterprise systems running. This is partly because the manufacturing environment and the associated systems that produce the machines are operating independently from the IT systems and customers experience—the experience of using these machines. The upcoming industrial revolution, many refers to as Industrial 4.0, is expected to bridge these independent systems by bringing a feedback loop between the customers, manufacturers and the machines.

Painful for both customers and manufacturers

If we take a look at customer’s perspective, when a machine breaks down, it contacts the manufacturer to fix it. This experience has always been frustrating. The customer has to start with identifying the products by providing a serial number, then follow with describing the incident.

The customer’s request usually starts with a ticket that is going to flow through different support staff, who may remotely examine the machine. This is the best case scenario, but many will lead to requesting further diagnostic information before deciding how to fix it, or whether it is fixable at all.

Digital twin and digital thread

In the future, with connected manufacturing, two key systems—digital twin and digital thread—are going to create a closed feedback loop, connecting the customers, manufacturer and the machines. These two systems and their integration with other systems are going to be driven by the manufacturer’s IT team, who will become the torch bearers for the transformation journey.

Digital twin, as the name indicates is a digital replica of the physical machine. It tracks all the “operating experiences” of the machine through sensors and records them in form of data. Upon the production and delivery of the machine, the digital twin is expected to continuously capture data from the machine and send it to the manufacturer.

Big data systems within the manufacturer can analyze the data to identify anomalies of the machine. They can also generate alerts to both the manufacturers and customers for potential failures. These alerts are expected to identify the relevant customer sites, machine serial number and diagnosis with minimal human intervention.

To close this feedback loop, these alerts are able to automatically generate requests to order and deliver the required spare parts for machine maintenance, before it breaks. This last step, integrating the IT enterprise systems with the big data systems via application programming interface (API), takes automation to a whole new level.

Such automation brings higher uptime and avoids unexpected breakdowns resulting in better customer experiences. This communication framework which enables communication between digital twins, the customer environment and IT systems is called digital thread.