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Manufacturing Tech: The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same


computing architecture manufacturingOn December 1, I began working on my 20th year as an analyst in the manufacturing space. During the last 19 years, I have covered manufacturing technology from the shop floor all the way to the executive suite.

The list of acronyms related to the topics I have covered pretty much include every letter of the alphabet in two, three, and four letter combinations. The ones that I introduced to the marketplace are OCS for open control systems and EAM for enterprise asset management.

My travels took me to every continent on the globe, except Antarctica (once it was all six in the same year), and exposed me to every industry from Abattoirs to Yacht Building (not quite A-Z).

When contemplating such a momentous time, looking back on what manufacturers were seeking assistance with then and now and what topics analysts focused on caused me to reflect on while there have been significant advances in technology, in many respects the more things have changed the more they have stayed the same.

This leads me to point out that if we expect to take advantage of emerging technologies like Cloud, Wearables/Mobile, and the IoT, we need to both understand how they evolved and why we have struggled to leverage some of the predecessor technologies that never caught on in manufacturing.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

The IoT is one of the most talked about technological trends in manufacturing today, offering the promise of being able to access information about anything, anywhere, at any time.

Every major technology and automation provider has an IoT strategy as well as their own take on the topic. Some refer to it as the Industrial Internet (GE), others talk about IT/OT (Rockwell), while some go beyond IoT to talk about the Internet of Everything (Cisco).

Ever since Modicon and Allen Bradley introduced the programmable logic controller (PLC) to replace relay panels, and Honeywell introduced Totally Digital Control 2000, manufacturing has been shifting from a hardwired analog architecture to a networked digital architecture.

All during this time the networking has evolved from proprietary, albeit hardened versions, to open versions based on widely deployed commercially accepted protocols. Also, as wireless technology has matured we have seen a shift from copper to fiber to wireless.

At the same time, operator interfaces to these new digital systems evolved from proprietary (and hardened) hardware and software to first MS-DOC then Windows-based applications, and finally to commercial-grade hardware using widely available protocols and operating systems.

To claim we are suddenly seeing the convergence of business system IT and plant floor technology in the last several years simply belies the truth that for the last 35-40 years the digital technologies associated with business systems has been evolving together with all the consequent issues of support, management, and security evolving simultaneously.

At the same time, the decreasing cost of sensors—thanks to integrated circuit technology—and the increases in bandwidth both of wireless and hardware-based networking has led to the proliferation of more things connected together than ever before.

The Cloud

Another supposedly transformative technology is Cloud. Marketing hype would have us believe that in the last few years, some miraculous technological breakthrough has enabled business to offload its computational needs to some engine in a remote location.

Ironically, at the start of my University of Missouri engineering education in 1968, every engineering department had a punch card reader and a line printer in each building, and our input/output all went off to a centralized mainframe computer somewhere else on campus (private cloud).

I wrote my first CMMS application in 1971, using the same technology except the computer was located at a service bureau over a 1,000 miles away (public cloud).

As an analyst I have seen the transition from vendors hosting software for a customer, to service bureaus hosting software for customers, to multi-tenant Software as a Service (SaaS) models of hosting, to now companies like Microsoft and Amazon providing almost the same services IBM and RCA did 40 years ago.

So, while the names of the providers, the speed and power and the systems and communications has grown, and the costs dropped, the concept behind cloud is not new.

Wearables and Mobile Technology

While I had a Nokia flip-phone that I used only for mobile calls, 1995 was also the era of the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA).

All the techies rushed out to get the Apple Newton, which, while elegant and functional, failed to take the market by storm. It was the Palm Pilot that made the first inroads, followed by the RIM Blackberry that combined the cell phone, PDA, and eMail in a handheld device.

Over the last twenty years, the computational power has increased as have communication speeds, costs have dropped and usability grown, and once again this has been occurring and evolving for decades. So it is evolution instead of transformation.

Tipping Points

So if things are only evolving and no new radically transformative change is taking place, why is there so much hype today around these topics in manufacturing?

What drives technology from the consumer sector into the industrial sector has always been a combination of decreases in cost, so redundancy can be built-in in place of hardening as the only option to reliability, increases in power and speed to accommodate the dynamic nature of manufacturing processes, and changes in usability either because of familiarity from the commercial sector due to shifts in the workforce demographics or by leveraging the newer technologies to just make intuitive systems.

However, something is different today than it was twenty years ago when I became an analyst. As any technology evolves, it often reaches a tipping point. That is the point when a slow migration suddenly becomes a massive shift. Today, the convergence of networking under the guise of IoT, Cloud, and Mobile technology seem to be simultaneously reaching a tipping point in adoption on the plant floor, such that we will see transformative behavior, not because the underlying technologies are transformative themselves, but rather because of the synergistic effects of all three phenomonems happening at the same time.

This should make the next twenty years even more interesting than the last twenty have been.

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