I Recently, I had a chance to visit the ARC Forum in Orlando for the first time. I like doing these kinds of things. There are always people at these events that have the unique ability to assemble all the little pieces laying around into a coherent whole. Which is what I’d like to talk about in this article.
We all know about cloud computing. We all know about social networking. We all know about the advances in data driven analytics and how it is being used to enhance the quality and speed of product manufacturing. And we all know about mobile communications.
Or do we? Have we stopped for a second to think about the impact the combination of all these things is going to have on automation and the products and services we deliver?
Let’s take cloud computing. Cloud computing, in short, is the practice of using computer resources outside the confines of your manufacturing environment and usually beyond the doors of your facility. There are various types of cloud computing. There’s everything from private clouds where the resources are dedicated to you and only your use to public clouds where anyone can use that resource. And there are a few models in between.
The big advantage of cloud computing is the flexibility and extensibility it gives you. Need more server space, you got it. Need to duplicate critical data in vastly different areas of the world. No problem. And you only pay for what you use without incurring facility costs, people costs, site maintenance or any of that.
Pretty sweet deal? Well maybe not.
Are you ready to trust critical data about your processes, operations, customers and finances to a third-party? Do you know that the APIs that access the cloud are secure? Can that third-party keep a virtual firewall between your data and the next guy’s data? Is your data encrypted? Who works at that provider? What are their backgrounds? Do they have access to your data? I am not recommending you avoid using a cloud, just go into it with your eyes wide open to the potential problems.
Truth is, we use cloud computing every day. That’s what Facebook is. That’s LinkediIn. There’s probably a CRM service that your sales force uses that is cloud based [trouble anybody that your customer list is in a cloud somewhere that can be accessed by who knows who?] Despite the risks, it’s just too darn flexible and convenient to not use it.
The second pillar of future automation is mobile. I don’t know where you could be living today without realizing the advances that have been made in mobile computing in the last few years. I’m a guy that started my career by lugging a massive, 30 pound Compaq computer with me. That thing was not only heavy, but big and awkward. Now we have teeny tiny laptops, cells phones and Ipads. We’re connected all the time. Not sure that’s a good thing but it’s the way it is.
Lots of us think that we have all the connectivity we could want but I’m here to say that we haven’t even scratched the surface. There’s lots more coming when we integrate the kinds of things I talk about a little later in this article. Mobile communications with the ability to deliver exactly what data you need when you want it without having to type in a tag name from some PLC is coming. And it’s going to offer us massive productivity enhancements. It’s not here yet. Not the way I envision it, but it’s coming.
A third pillar of this world is advanced analytics. This field has been around for quite a while. I remember in my old Procter and Gamble days that we had this Measurex computer for the paper machines that did all sorts of fancy calculations.
Today our production processes are not only fast, they’re complex and continually changing. Some of them hinge on being out of control all the time. There are interdependencies, mechanical or chemical dynamics, and temporal needs that make advanced analytics necessary. And these advanced analytics often need to interact with business systems - ours, suppliers and customers, to achieve the very best results. That’s the future - taking those advance analytics and integrating them with people and systems - it’s going to put them on steroids.
The last pillar of this automation future is social networking. I’ll bet this is the one that surprises you, but social networking has a role to play in automation. It’s not just your teenage daughter’s social media anymore.
Using social media technologies, you can easily bring to bear the best experts in the world to solve problems. Social media is the way that we are going to connect with internal colleagues, partners in trade groups, customers and vendors as well as friends and family. More and more it’s a way of life for hundreds of millions of people. It’s not realistic to think that this won’t affect us in the automation industry.
Do I think that Facebook, as it exists today, is the media for that? No. Definitely not. But Facebook does give us an inkling of how we might interact in the future. I’m excited about the idea of having the ability to create networks of people that can solve specific problems.
Kenandy has taken the first step into making this happen. They are the first ERP Vendor to incorporate social media tools into their software application. What can you do with it? Find new suppliers. Send customers delivery information. Let suppliers know when stock levels reach trigger levels. This is just the start. More vendors will be incorporating social networking into their product offerings.
Look at all these things in tandem. Moving data on our manufacturing systems into the cloud. Having mobile platforms that allow us to view, analyze and change processes on the fly from anywhere. The ability to call on advanced analytic support systems to provide specialized algorithm analysis on that cloud data. The ability to quickly and easily work with a remote team of experts though a common, convenient media.
When we take all of that together, combine all these technologies and trends, we are going to have a method of working that is more effective and productive than anything ever seen in history. Henry Ford and his assembly line have nothing on this.
I’m excited about all this and the benefits it will bring.