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Data-driven manufacturing - laying the foundation for tomorrow’s interconnected workflows


Manufacturing workflows are evolving at an unprecedented rate, and the trend shows no signs of slowing down. The increasing effectiveness and affordability of 'smart' technologies and the Internet of Things means IT and OT are increasingly interconnected, with increasing volumes of data flowing between sites and devices on an ongoing basis.

This has already provided the sector with numerous opportunities to reduce costs, enhance safety, and optimise efficiency, but this is just the beginning. As manufacturers continue their unique digital transformation journeys, and work with their technology partners to successfully integrate the latest innovations into their operations, new opportunities will continue to reveal themselves. While it is impossible to predict with complete certainty how tomorrow's innovations will unfold, we can certainly consider current trends, and how they may evolve in the future…

Interconnected systems power seamless operations

The concept of interconnected systems is nothing new, with every manufacturing site now having both WiFi and wired connectivity in place. But future-minded manufacturers are already looking for ways to enhance and augment this foundational part of their IT infrastructure. For example, public WiFi and internet services may not offer the standard of security required when highly sensitive IP is being transferred. In such cases, investing in private 5G connectivity, while retaining public internet services for day-to-day operations, may well provide the perfect balance of performance, security, and cost control.

Control and visibility - from the micro to the macro

Smart sensors are now near-omnipresent in manufacturing operations, but is their full potential being realised? This is no longer simply a question of monitoring the performance of individual pieces of equipment, but instead provides decision makers at all levels with the information they need, whenever and wherever they need it.

Consider the following:

Supply chain optimisation

End-to-end tracking of the entire supply chain ensures any potential delays can be anticipated and planned around, minimising the potential impact on project delivery times.

Operational efficiency

Careful analysis of how and when equipment is utilised can potentially yield rich opportunities to implement more efficient ways of operating. For example, tracking where and when specific pieces of equipment are inactive can help ensure they are deployed more efficiently, or form a robust business case for purchasing additional equipment.

Adopting greener approaches

Just as with other sectors, manufacturers are increasingly challenged to demonstrate their commitment to environmentally friendly ways of operating. Tracking energy usage at every stage of an operation can help expediate this process and highlight potential ways to reduce its environmental impact.

AI has a critical role to play here. The quantities of data generated by manufacturing operations are simply too vast for humans to effectively analyse, but by centralising all data in the Cloud and automating the analysis process, real-time performance insights from multiple sites become readily accessible.
Manufacturing technology solutions to optimise security, sustainability, and efficiency

All of this is supporting the move to true data-driven decision-making, where everything from day-to-day processes to the long-term direction of the company is informed by accurate, actionable information, collated in real-time. When business cases are backed up by hard data, decisionm akers at all levels will be well-placed to take decisive, effective action.
However, when it comes to routine, day-to-day decisions regarding - for example - the maintenance of machines across an operation, human intervention may not necessarily be required. With smart sensors in place, and AI providing real-time analysis of each machine's performance, parameters can be established regarding when routine maintenance (e.g. the replacement of a part) will be required, and alerts sent to the appropriate team without any intervention being required from a manager. At the same time, alerts can be set up for when a human decision maker will indeed be required, ensuring the right person can be made available as quickly as possible in the event of an incident.

In this way, manufacturers can utilise both human and AI decision-making as appropriate - the best of both worlds - to ensure the drive for operational efficiency need not involve sacrificing human initiative and expertise.

A new breed of cyber security for the new breed of manufacturing
Of course, any new integration creates a potential new attack vector that bad actors can - and will - exploit.

This includes both insider threats and cyber criminals, which means security ecosystems must integrate both physical and cyber security, while acting upon the very latest threat intelligence. With attacks on critical infrastructure a certainty in the years ahead, and the cost of even the briefest downtime potentially totalling millions of pounds, it is essential to take a proactive approach to cyber security. Data must be fully protected at rest and in transit, and each physical area of the operation kept accessible only to authorised individuals.

A holistic approach to manufacturing technology infrastructure
While we have looked at several elements on manufacturing operations in this article, they do not exist in isolation. If each element - from sensors, to Cloud, connectivity, AI, and cyber security - is to deliver the desired ROI, they must be intelligently integrated, in order to support manufacturers' highly dynamic workflows.

This places a considerable burden on internal teams, who are unlikely to possess the full range of technical expertise required, or have experience in such complex integrations. Manufacturers' digital transformation journeys will therefore require hands-on support from a trusted technology partner, who can not only provide the full range of solutions required, but deliver them in bespoke, fully integrated combinations, designed in close collaboration with internal stakeholders.

Click here to find out more about Exponential-e's work with leading manufacturers across the UK, and how we can support your own move towards true, data-driven manufacturing.
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