It’s a difficult time for manufacturers. Very difficult. If you have a small to medium size manufacturing business, you are in a pressure cooker like never before.
You have labor problems – not traditional labor unrest but lack-of-labor problems. There just aren’t workers to hire. The unemployment rate is so low you are forced to take people you would have never considered before.
You have price pressures. Amazon is now affecting everyone. “I can get it for less on Amazon.” If it’s hurting the diaper business at companies like Procter & Gamble and Kimberly Clark, it’s probably affecting your business too and possibly in ways you don’t even know. The Amazon effect is spreading throughout the country.
And you have technology pressures. There is a lot of new technology available, and it’s hard to know what is really going to be a costly distraction and what is going to be lifesaving, productivity-enhancing, and cost reducing. Years ago, we heard the phrase “No Islands of Automation.” That was when we were connecting everything to PLCs over EtherNet/IP, DeviceNet,Profibus DP, and PROFINET IO. Now it’s Cloud connectivity. There are literally thousands of manufacturing IOT companies that want to get your data (magically it seems), put it into the Cloud and give you productivity results. Is it worth the investment? Well, that answer is probably “maybe.” It’s hard to know. And you always wonder if your competitor is doing something in that area. The question is always about whether there is some kind of competitive threat brewing.
You may be one of those manufacturers that has machines with no automation. It’s hard for a lot of younger people to understand, but for a long time, we built machines that had big ON and OFF switches. We started the machine in the morning with the big ON switch and hit the big OFF switch in the evening. No automation. No Programmable Controllers. No networks and certainly no Cloud connectivity. And since the life of those machines is about 17 years on average, that means that a lot of those older machines are still on your floor, still chugging away – happily, without any automation.
Unfortunately – and I hate to be the bearer of bad news – you need to get data from them. We live in a world where we are connecting our machines to our customers’ machines (“Forward Integration”) and to our suppliers’ machines (“Backward Integration”). And that Amazon effect is very real. It might not be obvious to you how it’s affecting your business as it wasn’t early on to P&G and Kimberly Clark, but it may become obvious sooner than you’d like.
My recommendation is that if you have some of these older machines, look into PackML over OPC UA. I have a lot of technical resources on our website for those technologies. At least, start to get familiar with them and see what they can do for you. Here’s why I recommend these two specific technologies:
OPC UA – This is the network of the future. It’s going to eventually replace Modbus and all the Ethernet technologies. It’s built sort of with Lego blocks, unlike these older technologies. If there is some new security, you can plug it in. If there is a new transport technology for some new media we don’t understand today, you can plug it in. It is a universal connectivity. It provides you with the connectivity you’ll need in the future.
PackML – This is application technology that standardizes both the data in your machine and the way that an operator monitors and controls the machine. This technology has the potential to save you a lot of money in training costs and provide context to your data. If every machine you have uses the identical set of machine states, your operators don’t need to be trained on the operation of every machine. And, together with OPC UA, it provides a universal mechanism for application programs to know how to collect data from your machines.
These are the two technologies that every small manufacturer needs to solve the labor, operational and integration problems of the future.