The Three Rules of Industrial Operations Management and Industrial IoT Applications

The Three Rules of Industrial Operations Management and Industrial IoT Applications

Steven Garbrecht - Chief Digital Architect
Steven Garbrecht - Chief Digital Architect

I've been thinking about the work I've been doing over the last couple of decades and what the basic requirements are for any new product coming into the industrial operations management space. This is based upon my experience working in DCS, SCADA, Historians, MES, ERP, APM, Optimization, Simulation and other operations management application areas. The formula is simple and any startup company should consider these three aspects when developing a new software product for the industrial market. As with anything, these statements are directional rather than absolutes.

Rule 1 - It should add to what you have rather than replacing

In the world of industrial plants and manufacturing there are very few new or greenfield opportunities. Many of these plants have been around for decades and have seen several generations of computer and automation technology applied to their sites. There are literally thousands of hours of engineering work that's gone into the configuration of these control systems, databases and applications. The key is not to replace what is working. This is the rallying cry of all engineers. If it isn’t broken, don't try to fix it. Therefore, the real value comes in adding something to what they already have that gives new insights and provides operations optimization what tells them how to make improvements using the data that they already have. A great example of this was the historian technologies that came out in the late 1980s. They were placed on top of distributed control systems and provided information management for people outside of the plant floor environment. A whole series of applications spawned from the use of this historical information. It was truly revolutionary. Another great example is SCADA systems that were developed in parallel with the acceptance of Microsoft-based minicomputers and added value to existing PLCs. The next big series of applications will come via cloud and edge-based systems that leverage data from existing automation and other databases but do not attempt to replicate functionality that works today on premises. Tying in the supply chain with these type of applications will provide a revolutionary way to approach solving problems that have been plaguing industrial operators for years.

Rule 2 - It integrates with everything you have today

Ever since I started to work in this industry in 1991, every position I've come to has identified the problem of silos of information as plaguing industrial operations. Whether it was multiple control systems, or multiple plants that needed to be visible across the enterprise, or looking across disparate applications such as HR, Quality, ERP and MES, the story has remained the same. Integrate together what I have and hold back no capabilities in integrating to everything I have. One of the keys is to make sure that you have connectors for all the different data sources inside of the plant or industrial operations environment. This includes real-time information sources like control systems and PLCs, and also transaction-based systems. If you don't have the interfaces to the systems then partner with vendors that provide interfaces that can convert the information into a form that can be leveraged in your application. This can't be stressed enough as the very first project you will encounter will require that data source that you don't have an interface for today. It's also important that you provide easy mechanisms for making this connection that doesn't require hours of services work to pull off. The more automatic the connection, the better. Consider API toolkits to allow partners to create new interfaces and make it open source so the project community can help build your interfaces.

A great example of this are device integration servers that are used to connect to different types of PLCs and expose the data in a common structure that can be used by a supervisor control program or by an Historian to log the information in a format that can be used by many different programs. Another are data interfaces from ERP, LIMS, EAM or MES systems. It's surprising how many new applications coming into the market do not make it easy to interface the core application to other data sources without a lot of engineering effort.

Rule 3 - It can be customized to meet your specific business needs

Every manufacturing plant or industrial site is in fact a snowflake. It has specific configurations and ways of doing things that need to be accounted for. This isn't to say that an organization should not try to standardize their operational templates across multiple sites to drive standardization or common ways of doing things. This is needed to provide comparable measurements across facilities for things such as downtime, quality and production throughput KPIs. If you think of a new application project as a continuous improvement project, there are certain aspects that need to be configured to exactly match what the operation needs to do at that particular site. We talk about “leading with lean improvement techniques" and then adding digital capabilities to capture the data and provide insight that allows your organization to further lean out. The more configurable you can make your industrial solution, the more easily it will be accepted by the masses across many types of industries and organizations. The key is making this customization up-gradable and maintainable through a standard set of tools and processes. That way as the technology improves, the customized configuration can improve with it.

One good example of this is a SCADA system that can be easily customized to meet specific visualization requirements and operations procedures for a manufacturing plant. Also, an MES system that can be configured specifically for how the operations work within a plant. Or an EAM system that can be customized to monitor for certain events and failure mechanisms for asset performance management.

As a packaged application provider or SaaS solution developer, if you follow these three rules in developing new industrial operations management or IoT applications, the adoption of your products will be much faster and you won't have to make radical architectural changes to meet new customer requirements as the fundamentals will be built-in. Take this for what it's worth as one person's opinions having worked in the marketplace for a while.