Questions You Must Ask Before Investing in Factory Connectivity (Part 1)

Factory Floor Connectivity Challenges

If you’ve stumbled upon this article hoping to find all the nitty-gritty solutions for your factory connectivity issues, I regret to inform you that I do not have any. After all, I am just weeks into my tenure in RTA’s marketing department…I am not an engineer and I do not code. I can build very little beyond a sandwich, and even that is difficult for me at times. The bottom line is this: there is no fix-all solution, no cookie-cutter formula, and no perfect game plan to fixing your factory’s connectivity issues. Believe me, if I had all the answers, I would be living on a private island right now drinking Mai Tais and watching the waves come in. But alas, I must continue to put up with Wisconsin’s cold weather. While I don’t have all the answers, I do have a series of questions that every control engineer or plant manager should be asking as they look to improve connectivity in the present and future.

#1 What do we want to accomplish?

Answering this will help you create a clear vision for what the future of your factory floor looks like. Take some time and clearly outline your goals. How much are you willing to invest? What is your target ROI? How will this investment make your job, and the jobs of your peers, easier? Determining your ROI and your ability to focus more attention on other aspects of your job can help you judge the effectiveness of your investment. After you set your goals, consider what needs to be done to reach these goals. Do you need to improve collaboration between stakeholders? Optimize machine operations and staff productivity? Minimize risk? Figuring out all of these things will make this endeavor more successful.

#2: How much AI is too much?

Believe it or not, artificial intelligence is often only as useful as the data that it is being fed. You might feel tempted to apply as much AI as possible and to every machine that will support it. There are certain scenarios where you should not use AI. The first is when you feel that the program will not have access to clean and meaningful data. Manufacturing data can sometimes be biased, error-ridden, or downright outdated. One example would be a sensor that collects data in extreme operating conditions where temperatures are high and noise and intense vibrations can produce inaccurate data. The other scenario is an obvious one: you do not want your machines to become self-aware and try to overthrow you. If you ever feel that your superiority is being challenged, simply unplug the machine. While this will cause a multitude of other problems within your facility, it will be nothing in comparison to the extinction of humanity.

(For legal purposes, RTA is not responsible for damages that result from device disconnection. We do not foresee an AI takeover until 2022, and you should leave your devices connected until then.)

#3 Where should data be stored?

You essentially have two options. You can store your data locally, or through the Cloud. Using the Cloud is often the most attractive method of storing data. Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services are solid tools for a lot of manufacturers. They provide quick and easy access to your data with a variety of data computing programs that you can use. The drawback is that your data is not entirely safe. Manufacturing is the second most frequently hacked industry behind healthcare. With the sheer volume of data being held by these massive cloud storage platforms, it’s no wonder that they are often the subject of cyber-attacks and have proven to be hackable. You do have the option of storing your data locally. RTA recently released the Raptor Data Historian, which gives manufacturers using Allen-Bradley PLCs and Modbus systems the ability to aggregate machine data easily. Raptor operates locally and doesn’t require internet connectivity. Instead, Raptor gives you complete access to your data with absolutely no monthly service fees. Not only that, Raptor gives you the peace of mind of knowing that in the event their machinery begins to malfunction or experience irregular temperatures or vibration, you will be notified via email.

#4 How can we prevent a cyberattack?

Part of your initial investment into better connectivity should be into cybersecurity. Consider your employee data, customer records, banking, and financial data—you certainly do not want any of this information to get into the wrong hands. Begin by identifying your most important assets. Next, have a threat detection and response protocol that will act as a procedure for how to handle attacks. You should also add a Network Address Translator or Deep Packet Inspection tool. The ICS-Defender, is a great all-in-one security appliance that helps protect your factory floor that has a simple UI and doesn’t rely on a CLI.

Thanks for reading part one of this series. For additional support, give us a buzz at 1-800-249-1612 or send us an email. Our application engineers are friendly, knowledgeable, and in desperate need of something productive to do. Yesterday, I was almost hit in the head by a remote-control helicopter. So please, put them to work.