Seeking an End to Pilot Purgatory

Feb. 5, 2020
Launched in 2016, the Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute is ready to unveil an information infrastructure that promises to provide the frictionless movement of democratized data.

In the U.S., manufacturing modernization is ceaselessly suffering from a practice called “pilot purgatory.” This has been described as the endless recreation of information during system upgrades. It usually occurs when an individual vendor or manufacturer sets out on a digital transformation journey, but they do so within their own little island of innovation.  This leads to the inability to scale to a much broader application—especially across the supply chain—because the data is held captive within one company’s infrastructure.

What the industry needs is an unobstructed way to move information. It needs a way to make islands of innovation interoperable, networked, and flexible. And that requires a common infrastructure that supports an ecosystem, with the ultimate goal being the seamless movement of data between a variety of systems and stakeholders.

It’s a great idea, but not an easy undertaking, and not something one company can do alone.

This week I attended the ARC Forum in Orlando, and while the theme there was “Driving Digital Transformation in Industry and Cities,” I think the underlying message is how to break free from pilot purgatory. I kept hearing about the burden of upgrading in isolation from vendors, consortiums, and global manufacturers, each with their own spin on how to make sharing data easy, secure, and scalable. While they all are making great strides towards more collaborative technologies and communities, it makes me wonder if these are still siloed approaches based on the needs of individual participants, and therefore not necessarily advancing manufacturing as a whole.  

One initiative, however, stands out for me at the moment, specifically because it brings together government, manufacturers, machine builders, system integrators, application vendors, and academia with a mission of creating an ecosystem that will serve as the foundation for “smart manufacturing” in America.

The Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute (CESMII) officially launched in 2016 with about $150 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) plus private contributions. A portion of that money has been going toward development of an infrastructure platform that CESMII hopes will serve as the foundation for “frictionless  movement of information—data and context—between real-time operations and the people and systems that can create value for the organization.” They are positioning this to become the de facto standard for infrastructure technology to “accelerate the democratization of smart manufacturing.”

This year, we will find out how this all actually works, as CESMII is officially launching the first version of this platform in June.

“Our mandate is to prove the productivity and competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing,” said John Dyck CEO of CESMII. And although CESMII is funded by the DOE, this is not a project directed only at the energy sector or capital intense industries, but it is meant to be a horizontal play that applies to every manufacturer, large and small. “Anything you do [requires] energy management. In the context of a broader vision, we make the connection between a more efficient and productive manufacturing setting. If you reduce waste and have more effective asset utilization, you’ll have a more energy efficient outcome.”

According to CESMII, the platform infrastructure in development will enable the flow of information between machines, the plant, or the supply chain through a contextualized work environment where a person can create something once to be easily repeated and scaled. “Eighty percent of any project in this space is spent on infrastructure, configuration, building a data model, doing the dashboard, and creating reports to add value,” Dyck said. “We are talking about turning that 80% into minutes or hours instead of months. That is our measure of success and we’ll demonstrate that for the first time in March.”

In March, at the CESMII annual meeting, they will be unveiling the Smart Manufacturing Innovation Platform as well as demonstrating a self-serve smart manufacturing marketplace, among other things. There are real projects underway that are testing the platform today, but CESMII will also be announcing that they’ll be funding small, agile projects—from $50,000 to $250,000—that will focus on energy consumption, productivity for unit operations, and asset monitoring, management, and predictive maintenance.

At the core of the Smart Manufacturing Innovation Platform is an open source data modeling tool from ThinkIQ and workflow capabilities from Savigent Technologies. This enabling technology includes a smart manufacturing API to browse and refine the data model and data store, as well as detect, connect, monitor, and manage systems to federate all profiles—which are data models for a device, a machine, or a process, that defines capabilities and data acquisition rules. If someone creates a profile for an individual class of machines, it can be digitized and made available to the smart manufacturing marketplace. “It’s essentially crowdsourcing a plug-and-play driver for any manufacturing asset,” Dyck said. “A person with the domain expertise does it once and everyone else in the world has access to it. That means you no longer need to fund one-off solutions that are required in today’s status quo environment.”

What CESMII is doing could signal the end of pilot purgatory as we know it. In addition, the model is not only about scaling data, but also empowering a new generation of digital manufacturing practitioners who will have information at their fingertips. 

I’d encourage everyone associated with the manufacturing industry to learn more about what CESMII is doing to advance smart manufacturing in the U.S., and to consider joining the ecosystem. Contact the organization directly or attend the annual meeting March 3-5, 2020 on the campus of UCLA:

Note: PMMI Media Group editors have purchased carbon credits through to ensure flights we take to cover the ARC Industry Forum are carbon neutral

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