LNS Research was pleased to be among the industry media and analyst guests at Rockwell Automation’s RSTechED event last month in Orlando, FL. This was the 17th annual event series, which is geared around education and competency in the latest automation and information offerings for Rockwell Automation and partner attendees.
Over 1,900 attendees from 39 countries were in attendance for the more than 130 available sessions in Orlando, and a total of 5,000 people are expected to be trained as additional regional RSTechED events are completed around the globe. Continued progress on the journey to create a connected enterprise was the overall theme.
Keynote Messages & LNS Research Observations
As part of the opening keynote session, we heard how Rockwell Automation is using its own automation and information software technologies in combination with SAP enterprise software to create a connected enterprise that improves its supply chain responsiveness and streamlines its manufacturing operations across 20 plants. We have heard similar stories from other companies like GE, Siemens, and Microsoft on how they are ‘eating their own dog food’ to improve their respective businesses.
Given that electronics and mechatronics has not been a ‘sweet spot’ industry solution area for Rockwell Automation end-customers, it was interesting to hear how FactoryTalk ProductionCentre (MES software), along with Rockwell Software ERP Integration Gateway (to integrate with SAP software for Rockwell’s internal production operations) was performing in this context. The overall business results of the five-year project presented by Bob Murphy, Rockwell Automation’s Operations VP were impressive. Highlights included:
- Improved supply chain visibility
- Standardized manufacturing workflows and processes
- Reduced work in process inventory from 120 to 82 days
- Realized 4-5% in annual productivity improvements to date
- Maintained or improved service levels to customers
In a separate keynote address from Barb Edson, Microsoft’s General Manager of Marketing for their commercial Internet of Things (IoT) offerings, Barb described Microsoft’s ‘intelligent system approach’ to the overall connected enterprise theme. Microsoft is currently previewing an emerging Azure Intelligent Systems Service (ISS), a cloud-based platform for IoT applications that is due to come to market in early 2015. The scope of this integrated software solution for the IoT includes the management of heterogeneous edge computing devices to the visualization of the data—using a gateway-based security architecture. This is a new platform-as-a-service (PaaS) initiative that enables Microsoft partners and end-customers to provide and consume solutions respectively, using an operating expense business model with ongoing support and updates. This initiative will also provide Microsoft and its partners with an ongoing revenue stream as the demand grows for IoT applications.
Barb also described how with the convergence of Manufacturing and IT, the alliance with Rockwell Automation is aligning strategically around technology roadmaps and customer needs. The two companies are developing solutions for joint customers who want to leverage their existing technology investments and reduce cost of ownership. The resulting joint offerings are intended to deliver the right information content to the right function and role, and in the right computing environments to support operational excellence.
Lots of Evidence of Accelerated Manufacturing and IT Convergence
When the LNS Research team reflects on the tangible progress that Rockwell Automation has made along the connected enterprise journey from last year’s announcements and events, we see a significant acceleration in new products, customer implementation examples, along with an invigorated future product roadmap. On the product side, we saw new and enthusiastic product management talent coming in from Rockwell’s competitors, along with exciting new mobile information software releases, and new cloud-based software and services offerings.
We saw detailed previews of the latest FactoryTalk VantagePoint (EMI software) release 6, along with new multi-platform, browser-based mobile client software that works with Internet Explorer, Chrome, or Safari and automatically rotates and scales the client app to the resolution of the mobile phone, tablet or computer being used. The FactoryTalk VantagePoint mobile client leverages the same production model that is in the main server application, while different clients/users can be easily configured to only look at their particular areas of interest from that common model. Rockwell Automation has taken a simple and elegant approach to the licensing of this new mobile client capability by making it available as a free download from the popular ‘app stores’ and having the server connection use the same licensing approach as any other named or concurrent FactoryTalk VantagePoint view client.
In fact, the new mobile capabilities work with FactoryTalk VantagePoint release 5 or greater, and is being made available to existing customers who are on software support. Rockwell also intends to make more frequent releases and updates of the mobile client software without having to do any server updates. We believe that this approach should encourage easy customer trial and adoption of the new mobile capabilities. Previously, we saw Rockwell Automation as being a bit behind competitors in the mobile software solution space, so we're pleased to see these new capabilities coming out in a very thoughtful and customer-centric fashion.
FactoryTalk VantagePoint release 6 server capabilities include faster and easier connections to other plant historian systems, improved data export integration for Microsoft Excel analysis and reporting, along with better diagnostics for rapid troubleshooting. One of the RSTechED sessions went through a rapid demo of how to create value in a matter of 50 minutes, whereby the ease and simplicity of providing actionable intelligence and Excel reporting in under one hour was effectively highlighted.
From Cloud Avoidance to Cloud Prowess
When the LNS Research team attended last year’s major Rockwell Automation events (2013 RSTechED and Automation Fair), we engaged Rockwell executives and product managers about how their manufacturing software solutions are, and would be leveraging cloud computing architectures in the future. The responses we received at that time appeared pretty guarded, and limited to operating system virtualization as opposed to cloud based software services, with the exception of one custom asset performance solution example (M.G. Bryan). At that time, we did not see standard product offerings or a roadmap that included Software as a Service (Saas) or Platform as a Service (PaaS).
All of that changed dramatically at 2014 RSTechED. We attended sessions whereby customers were actively using virtualized Rockwell Automation software solutions running in private clouds, along with a roadmap and product preview of FactoryTalk VantagePoint EMI software that was running on top of Microsoft’s Azure PaaS, and is to be delivered to customers in a SaaS subscription model. Rockwell put a lot of thought into the associated security, availability and commercialization models.
Another cloud-based offering was demonstrated as being available today, and that was an innovative services offering referred to as the ‘Virtual Support Engineer.’ In this case, the offering was all about supplementing end-customer’s and OEM’s staffing with remote monitoring of critical automation assets via Rockwell Automation staff and technology, all supported by Microsoft Azure PaaS cloud infrastructure. The Virtual Support Engineer service provides a simple and secure approach to monitoring equipment and collecting performance analytics. Subscribers of the service can better understand how well their machinery is working and be alerted when performance falls outside of predefined limits in order to prevent downtime.
What Was Missing?
Given our focus on the manufacturing operations and quality space, the main thing that was missing for us was any roadmap update on FactoryTalk ProductionCentre. Outside of the keynote covering the internal Rockwell Automation use, and a few customer application sessions, there was no mention of future plans for FactoryTalk ProductionCentre enhancements or releases.
The second thing that was missing for us was a meaningful discussion about how Rockwell Automation may be helping its customers in the future to perform any Big Data analytics. There was a main session on Big Data, but it was educational in nature and only covered definitions and how customers should start by start focusing on the right ‘Small Data’ elements that can drive new insights and performance.
All in all, 2014 RSTechED was an excellent educational event that provided value for the varied backgrounds and responsibilities of the attendees.
For a more detailed review of Rockwell Automation’s Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM) overall software capabilities, be sure to access the LNS Research MOM Solution Selection Guide.