Age of Instrumentation & better manufacturing

July 12, 2018
Making decisions that matter in the moment. 

As manufacturing trends have moved us into the Age of Instrumentation, it’s getting easier to work

InfluxData's Mark Herring

smarter, not harder, through the use of technology. This means manufacturers can use technology to wisely gather and analyze relevant information at the right time to inform intelligent decisions, then act upon them in time to make a real impact.

Perhaps you’re at this stage. Perhaps you’re looking to get there.

Instrumentation became part of the picture when manufacturers put sensors on machines—we called this an “interesting business moment.” Sensor data is time-stamped and collected into a database, where it joins millions of similar data points that collectively tell a story over time or at a specific point in time.

Almost anything that generates a measurable metric or recorded event can be instrumented, in the physical or virtual worlds. Metrics relate to temperature, pressure, volume, speed, etc. Events can happen intentionally or unintentionally—accounts are created, inventory runs short, a valve is opened, a virtual machine is spun up, etc.

The placement of programmable logic controllers (PLCs) or remote terminal units (RTUs) on practically every available surface in manufacturing—from machines to sensors—is a reality today. These systems collect metrics and feed them into supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, which help control and monitor the equipment in use at a manufacturing plant. And with the IIoT, this instrumentation enables precise control of everything from utilities and critical infrastructure to manufacturing automation and assembly lines.

In the virtual world, instrumentation can monitor and control the manufacturing software that drives business processes—transaction engines, applications, microservices, containers, etc. Of course, these things are ephemeral; they come and go as needed to support modern computing infrastructures. Instrumentation in manufacturing software is a critical aspect of visualizing what these systems are doing—what activities are happening, when, and how well the applications and services are performing. From there they can be tweaked and optimized to get the best performance and return.

Technical imperatives in the Age of Instrumentation

There are technical imperatives to follow as organizations instrument their physical and virtual worlds.

  • Enable decisions that matter in the moment. Every manufacturing business wants to be “real-time” so that decisions based on incoming data and critical historical data can have a meaningful impact on what happens next. On the technology front, this requires the ability to ingest vast amounts of data very quickly, and to store it in a database that holds, potentially, 10 years of historical data that can accommodate continuous real-time queries and other immediate actions. Some decisions need split-second timing. For example, operators with proper inputs can monitor their systems and make real-time changes to increase plant output.
  • Enable observability of manufacturing systems. When everything within a system is instrumented, organizations have the power of “observability”—the ability to gain situational awareness of what’s happening inside that system. Beyond simple monitoring, observability affords insight across manufacturing systems, observing behavior of the system components, and using machine-learning to build predictability of what may happen next.
  • Enable actions, not just reports. The real power comes from using data to control what happens next…developing well-informed decisions that lead to beneficial actions. What’s more, humans don’t necessarily have to be the ones making the decisions and taking the actions; it’s possible to automate these steps to create even more value through autonomy. With deeper understanding into their operations, manufacturing organizations can have better plant production, less waste, and more productive employees.
  • Embrace new solutions. Just as the Age of Instrumentation holds the promise of new opportunities, it also requires technologies that are purpose-built to collect, store, analyze, act on and retain data forever, without down-sampling the vast amounts of data. A general-purpose database or traditional data-historian solution can’t accommodate the volume and the real-time nature of time-stamped data in manufacturing. Likewise, the data-collection agents must be tailored to the numerous sources of metric and events data. Machine-learning technologies are an essential component to finding those “business moments” in the data. Companies that want to get the most from their instrumented systems must embrace new data tools.

The technology requirements to leverage the Age of Instrumentation are demanding. But purpose-built platforms are a solution, enabling manufacturers to ingest millions of data points per second, scale horizontally and vertically, support real-time insights, and have anomaly-detection functions to find those interesting business moments.

In addition, these platforms are resource-aware, applying compression and down-sampling functions to aid in resource-utilization. They are built to support faster time-to-market with minimal dependencies.

The Age of Instrumentation is here. Savvy, data-driven manufacturers understand that instrumentation provides the foundation for real-time control and the development of adaptive systems that enable businesses to thrive in this rapidly changing world. The benefits are massive, particularly for those who start early and invest in the right tools to instrument their businesses.

Mark Herring is CMO with InfluxData