H 2023

Manufacturing like ordering a pizza...trends in 2023

Feb. 8, 2023
"AI tools do not replace an expert human, but they can act a bit like an intern."

By Heath Stephens, P.E., digitalization leader at Hargrove Controls & Automation, Control System Integrator Association member

From the way we order a pizza to the way we operate facilities, companies in all industries are taking advantage of the Internet of Things (IoT) in how they conduct business. The manufacturing industry is no different in its efforts, and in our current climate, success depends on one’s ability to adapt and embrace the advances of Industry 4.0. 

There are many emerging trends in digitalization that could help you overcome obstacles, mitigate current risks, and bring longevity to your manufacturing company. Let’s explore a few…

Increased outsourcing for third-party support

Companies will continue to rely on outsourced expertise for the implementation and ongoing maintenance of digitalized systems. Without the current manpower or resources to implement and maintain increasingly advanced systems, it has become necessary to outsource to third-party services and integrators.

While granting remote access through screenshare technology (Teams, Zoom, etc.) is sufficient for a quick fix or few hours of support, longer-term support requires other strategies. One method is to issue company laptops to select outside partners; this is cumbersome to manage as the number and use cases for third-party access grows. Virtual Desktop (Citrix, Azure VDI, etc.), VPN, and cloud-gateway devices are the more efficient way to implement remote access for most scenarios. The usage of cloud-hosted services gives contractors 24/7 remote access to assist in times of emergency and provide support of equipment, AI tools, and other applications to analyze quality and reliability.

Another approach is allowing data to be stored in the cloud. By allowing data to move into third-party platforms, companies create an extension of their team, gaining specialized expertise and leveraging resources without driving up their head count.

As with all shifts in data technology—whether the data is housed off-premises or internally with outside vendors having access—risks are inherent. Security is of utmost importance. Before you implement outsourcing, ensure firewall and security protocols are in place. Set standards and expectations for contractors so they are only allowed to do what they have been asked to do and nothing more. Actively monitor access in real time and log activities so you know what is going on in your system. It is good to “build a moat around your castle” and only lower the drawbridge for those you trust.  

Implementation of 5G

Your average TikTok user is concerned with faster web-browsing on their phones. For manufacturing companies, it’s high bandwidth and low latency. The advent of 4G networks brought new reliable remote access options. Ewon Cosy and similar cloud-gateway devices enable remote access to OT systems bypassing the IT layer, associated firewalls, and systems-management personnel. Data flows straight from the PLC cabinet to a cloud server that the contractor can remotely access securely and easily.

As opposed to 4G, 5G has more transmission antennas spaced closer together. So not only are speeds and bandwidth increased, but signals travel shorter distances, which decreases latency. This creates opportunities for real-time communication and control that the slower 4G connection did not have. It provides greater reliability, and decreases installation cost. Suddenly the concept of directly connecting IIoT devices to 5G cellular networks (versus WiFi connected devices linked to a 4G gateway) becomes a real possibility.

At smaller facilities, the ease of deployment still makes WiFi the way to go. For larger chemical plants, pulp and paper mills, steel plants, and refineries, 5G is poised to be an attractive solution for an IIoT backbone. In the past, companies with a large WiFi installation had to run a significant amount of fiber-optic cable throughout their facilities along with a lot of equipment to provide signal coverage (think routers, wireless access points, power injectors, switches, electrical circuits for power, and copper network cabling). And even still, facilities could have dead spots and coverage holes. 5G provides the ability to blanket a larger facility with a high-quality signal and relatively little hardware to deploy and maintain. You can have a 5G signal from one tower cover your entire facility.

Increased use of AI tools

Many manufacturing companies have strong internship programs. They look for eager, smart and talented individuals with basic training through schoolwork. Interns have the bandwidth to be put on a specific task and dive right into it. That is also what artificial intelligence tools do.

AI tools do not replace an expert human, but they can act a bit like an intern. These tools have built-in programming enabling them to mimic knowledge to complete certain tasks. Although they still require training and supervision, AI tools are cost effective and possess the ability to uncover insights, patterns and trends that the human brain cannot identify or could only identify with unlimited time.  

Do your due diligence

With these trends, it is important to do your due diligence. Ensure any technology you wish to implement at your facilities is well proven. Understand the risks and benefits with ongoing innovations in the market. Strive to become a leader in digitalization.

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