The Manufacturing Data Prison

I don’t know how you personally spend your days, but If you spent them traveling around industry events – from one automation conference to another, from one OPC UA event to another, from one PROFINET IO seminar to another, from one IoT event to another, from one vendor partner fair to another – you’d get a very different impression of the state of how easily data moves about the factory floor than you might get by visiting actual manufacturers and talking to end-users.

Pick any of these events and you’d learn that there are APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) for everything. You’d learn that every PLC system, embedded Windows or Linux controller, every labeler, printer, valve, and the linear actuator is seamlessly integrated with MES, ERP, and other enterprise applications. There is an OPC UA interface (and companion spec) for every component you’d like to use. All these devices are easily connected to the Cloud – unimpeded data transfers to AWS, MS Azure, the Google Cloud, IBM Watson and everything else. You’d wonder what you’re doing wrong because your manufacturing system isn’t like that. You’d think that you’re being left behind and everyone else is significantly more advanced than you are.

At any of these events it’s unlikely you’d hear much about the data prisons at the vast majority of manufacturing sites – from small mom and pop nut and bolt manufacturers to large, global automotive companies. These prisons are where most of our manufacturing data is – locked up tight with no hope of parole or escape. Sometimes there just aren’t any keys to the prison doors; other times data is purposely mislabeled or unidentified so that even if located, it can’t really be used properly. And in the worst cases, it’s just destroyed – thrown in the bit bucket never to see the light of day.

Sometimes, the data is imprisoned by the cost and complexity of the tools needed to access the data in a PLC. There is a Canadian clutch manufacturer I know that once told me he’d be ecstatic just to get his six most important clutch metrics into an excel spreadsheet. In his case, funds aren’t available (it’s not cheap), but even if they were, it’s unlikely time could be found in his small shop to install and configure the complex tools available from his PLC vendor.

Sometimes that data is imprisoned willfully. There are a number of toolmakers (many of them Asian) that consider tooling data proprietary, so they prevent and obscure access to it. They not only don’t provide any mechanisms to access it or document it, but they also don’t even acknowledge that the data exists in their tools. There is an Ohio manufacturer who’s gotten good at effecting jailbreaks. He adds keystroke recorders to his tooling to steal passwords and then attempts to decipher the raw values he finds there.

Other prisons are created by ignorance. Some machine builders are blissfully ignorant of data communications beyond EtherNet/IP and Modbus TCP. It’s something they’ve never provided. It’s something they really don’t understand, and it’s something their customers really aren’t demanding. It’s business as usual for them – they’ve never provided APIs or the mechanisms that publish data (and likely wouldn’t know where to begin). I’ve found that this applies equally well to small machine builders building things like labelers, printers, and markers as much as it does to larger machines.

Of course, data is imprisoned by design (or lack of it) in older equipment. Those well-constructed, valuable and very useful older conveyor systems, robots, PLCs and the like were never designed to make data available. These devices have years of useful life in them and valuable data, but there is no lock, no key, and no door to let it out.

Data integration between disparate components of a manufacturing system is not the cakewalk that you’ll find at a trade show and that you’ll hear from IoT vendors and technology trade associations. It’s actually hard work, complicated and sometimes tedious. But that’s our job at RTA. We’re here to manufacture the keys to release your data from these legacy prisons so that you can optimize your manufacturing process no matter where the data might be located. Call us on 1-800-249-1612 or email and tell us about the keys you need us to manufacture for your imprisoned data.