Steelcase gains new insights into manufacturing operations

Jan. 19, 2018
Office furniture manufacturer leverages cloud platform to transform into data-driven organization.

By Dave Perkon, Control Design technical editor

In March 2017, Steelcase announced a strategic partnership with Microsoft to explore the future of work, jointly introducing a range of technology-enabled spaces designed to help organizations foster creative

"Compared with what was available with older technology, the amount of information available now, along with the tools to get that information, then process, store and access it, is exploding. And it is going to create a great time for manufacturing." Steve Jones shared Steelcase’s digital journey at Smart Industry 2017.

thinking and better collaboration. The initiative integrates not only the more obvious tools of the trade for office workers, but also connectivity to Microsoft’s Azure IoT cloud to bring analytics to bear on the behalf of workers and their organizations.

Steelcase may be a household name to many, as it is the largest office furniture manufacturer in the world, providing a variety of technologies and architectural products to support the office-furniture industry. This market-facing digital transformation of furniture and office spaces is not just for its products and customers. Steelcase also has a wide-ranging internal initiative to digitally transform manufacturing operations at the $3 billion company’s 12 manufacturing facilities around the world.

Steve Jones, technical material & process consultant, Steelcase, told attendees of his keynote presentation at Smart Industry 2017 of the company’s digital journey into the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). "Steelcase is going through a digital transformation, creating a data-driven organization," said Jones. "Compared with what was available with older technology, the amount of information available now, along with the tools to get that information, then process, store and access it, is exploding. And it is going to create a great time for manufacturing."

Steelcase is collaborating with Microsoft in a number of ways. Not only is it using new technology to set up a more collaborative and cooperative workspace, it’s bringing this technology to a product. It's a room sensor that monitors a room to record how frequently and how many people use the conference or meeting rooms, so adjustments can be made.

"The Steelcase Workplace Advisor shows how even a meeting room is becoming part of the IIoT to help to understand and quantify the workspace experience," said Jones. "Sensors measure the real estate and analyze how, when and why each space is being used. That is not far from how machines or processes can be monitored to determine which are overperforming and which are underperforming and why."

From data to insight

On the operations side of the business, Steelcase is leveraging the expertise of its customer-facing data scientists. "This successful initiative is a collaborative effort between operations, including personnel with experience in manufacturing and processes, and an advanced analytics group with a dozen or more data scientists to help us analyze the very large volumes of data we are collecting," said Jones.

Part of the process was to first create their own definition of the IIoT. Steelcase's definition isn't what you will find online or in a text book. For them, it's a combination of Internet technologies in which electronically enabled devices (things) provide data to an interconnected network for extracting meaningful information. Again, the purpose is to extract meaningful information, not just collect large amounts of data.

“It does start with the data," stressed Jones. "This includes collection from each assembly machine through messages. Each message describes a specific, time-stamped event. These include operator functions, such as logging in to operate a machine, and significant production steps such as scanning in an order, serial number and options for various configurations. Successful completion of each step is also recorded, as well as when a good or bad item is transferred out of the machine."

The IIoT architecture Steelcase uses to collect this machine data starts with plant-floor devices communicating to an MQTT message broker with the basic message defined by the IPC-2541 CAMX standard. The data flows through an Azure IoT Hub, a Microsoft solution that integrates device level connectivity with the company’s cloud hosting environment. Steelcase uses Twilio to text and email event notifications; Excel for database queries; Tableau for visualization; and SAS for analytics.

"All these tools are important because we provide feedback from what we learn to the process,” said Jones. "The vast majority of what we do is based on these observations, but we can provide the feedback to the process automatically, as well."

One example cited by Jones was the identification of a single machine that outperformed its counterparts regardless of the operator. “This question triggered a Kaizen event that found air pressure on the high-performing machine was greater than for the other machines, resulting in a faster-running machine.” Once air pressure was increased to the other machines, data revealed a 10% improvement in cycle time across the fleet.

For Steelcase and for Jones, it’s this new ability to collect analyze data and gain new insights—with relatively little effort and at relatively low cost—that is the heart of the IIoT and of digital transformation within the company’s manufacturing operations.

Whattya wanna learn? Check out the 2018 Smart Industry webinar series here.