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The cloud on the horizon

Big data presents big opportunities along with big challenges

It seems everyone’s embracing data these days. Amada’s vFactory promises to unlock shop floor potential with real-time monitoring of parts, jobs and production departments. Trumpf offers to cut throughput times, reduce overhead costs and eliminate bottlenecks with TruConnect. Lincoln Electric has Checkpoint monitoring of welding operations, Cosen Saws has MechaLogix sawing analysis tools and Prima Power promotes Tulus for centralized fabrication management.

Despite having originated from very different and often competing machine builders, the intent of these disparate software systems is largely the same. All of them collect machine data, display and organize production activity, warn people when something’s gone awry (or is about to) and – properly implemented – are almost guaranteed to help shops improve their production processes and profitability. But is all this computerized wizardry too much of a good thing?

 

Mobility is an important aspect of Industry 4.0. As long as there’s a secure internet connection, supervisors and others involved in the manufacturing process have access to systems around the clock, from anywhere in the world.

Here to stay

Like it or not, Industry 4.0 is here to stay. As with the spinning jennies and steam engines of the first Industrial Revolution, the mastery of steel production in the second and the rise of semiconductors in the third, manufacturers must learn to adopt and conquer the cyber-physical technology of our fourth revolution, much of which is manifested via the Industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT.

While the first thought might be, “oh great, another complex technology term to worry about,” the IIoT is really quite simple. Stick a Wi-Fi-enabled vibration sensor on a turret punch, a network-aware thermometer on a roll former or an electronic pressure gauge on a stamping press – that’s the IIoT. These smart devices collect data from all around the shop floor and transmit it to a server or directly to the cloud – a server or group of servers accessible via the internet – from which the data can be analyzed using software designed for such tasks.

There’s only one problem. Multiply a dozen machine tools times a dozen sensors, for example, all of them collecting data around the clock, and you’re looking at prodigious amounts of data. Worse, most shops employ a variety of machine tool brands and fabricating processes, each with their own specific production metrics, data types and collection methods. Trying to collate all of this information into a usable picture of the shop floor is a gargantuan effort, one that must set aside proprietary boundaries in favor of agnostic, common-sense, decision-making tools that don’t require a degree in computer science to understand.

 

Hardware devices such as the Siemens Nano offer robust data encryption, easy communication using various protocols and secure access to the cloud.

Presence of mind

That’s where Dr. Stephan Ihmels comes in. A business development manager for Siemens Data Services in the United States, Ihmels is part of the team responsible for developing the platform from which such tools can be launched. “The MindSphere – Siemens Cloud for Industry is an open platform that allows our customers to develop digital services,” he says. “These include machine builders, manufacturers, system integrators and application developers, anyone that wants to develop software for the collection and analysis of industrial data.”

This data could be the power consumption on a machine tool, the load on a conveyor system’s drive train, locations of fork trucks in a warehouse, the list goes on.

“It’s basically any kind of monitoring and diagnostics that make sense to those who manage, sell or use such equipment,” Ihmels explains. “They might have a digitalization strategy, for example, that promises to create additional revenue streams through new service offerings. MindSphere can support them in doing that.”

By giving customers the ability to easily collate and analyze this data, intelligent decisions can be made more quickly. Ihmels offers the example of a machine builder he recently worked with that specializes in mid- to high-volume honing equipment for the automotive and hydraulics industries. This customer came to Siemens looking for a way to monitor in-process machining conditions in order to determine the most cost-effective time to change honing tools. Using MindSphere, they were able to provide the operator with an app that makes timely recommendations on this and other production parameters.

The results were better product quality, less machine downtime and reduced tooling costs, important considerations for any manufacturer, but especially so for those in the bare knuckles world of automotive manufacturing.

“In many cases, data analysis can be used to ‘predict’ the future,” Ihmels notes. “One good example of this is warning the operator of an impending asset failure, so that specific actions can be taken and unplanned downtime avoided. This is generally called ‘predictive maintenance’ and will be made possible through platforms and applications such as MindSphere.”

Communications via Ethernet, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and other methods are necessary for collecting data from a range of devices and equipment.

Locking up

MindSphere is an “open ecosystem,” another way of saying anyone can subscribe to it from Siemens and use it to develop their own applications (i.e., software). Those applications will be “hosted” (in the cloud) with Siemens partner SAP, using the company’s HANA database platform. For those who prefer to do their own hosting or are working with other partners, Ihmels says Siemens is developing alternative deployment methods that will be available within the next year.

All this talk of hosting and remote datacenters might leave some in the manufacturing industry concerned over security. Don’t worry, says Ihmels.

“Our MindConnect hardware is an important part of MindSphere,” he says. “It’s a hardened industrial PC that comes preloaded with the software needed to encrypt outbound data and communicate via a number of common protocols, providing a convenient and secure connection to MindSphere. It works much like the wireless router many of us have at home – connect it to the machine, define what data sources should be monitored, tell it about the outbound and inbound internet connections, and start collecting data. It’s that simple.”

As mentioned though, you still need some software to make use of all this data. If your shop’s not into computer programming and you don’t want to wait around for your machine builder or ERP vendor to develop something, Siemens’ Visual Analyzer and Fleet Manager apps are available now. Both work with MindSphere and allow manufacturers to connect with machine tools, analyze production data and better manage factory assets.

Preparing for the journey

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t be. Ihmels says shops can get started by selecting a few data points, connecting a machine or two for an initial proof of concept, and from there, gain a better understanding on how it all works, what they’re trying to achieve, possibly adding more resources to the project as they grow. There’s no need to make a big upfront investment or hire a bunch of IT resources.

“For Siemens as well as our customers, Industry 4.0 and the IIoT is a journey,” he says. “We’re all learning new things as we go, exploring what’s possible and how we can benefit from it. Unfortunately for some, it’s not really something you can hide from. Manufacturers are beginning to realize that, and we encourage them to start thinking about this technology, to make plans and ask questions. Whatever else happens, there’s one thing for sure: Your competition is going to do exactly that. Wait too long and you might just be left behind.”

Siemens Corp.