The scenario: Company management looks to decrease overhead costs by streamlining the headcount of technical support staff at their manufacturing plant(s), while at the same time wanting to increase operational efficiency. This sounds like an oxymoron. Is it achievable? Possibly.
Once the plant’s on-site technical support staff is reduced to a skeleton level, it’s wise for management to seriously consider supplementing the lean production support mechanism to sustain acceptable operational efficiency and meet production quotas. A viable consideration is to leverage the use of capable external technical resources along with added electronic eyes and ears on the plant floor to support management’s desire to cut costs while getting salable product out the door.
The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is bringing focus to connecting sensor data in an agile manner and providing actionable intelligence. Many companies have IoT or IIoT initiatives, so spending some capex on IIoT and opex on trusted outside resources might be the answer. Operational efficiency is achievable with the right combination of four components.
The first, and most vital, component is to have at least one on-site technical resource at the plant site, such as an operations (OT) engineer. Production needs a physical person who they can engage as their frontline resource when they need technical support. This resource might have the technical capabilities to help production fix their problem; then again, they might not because of lack of sufficient training or inadequate experience. At this point, here’s where two other components enter the solution scenario.
The second component can be on-call remote technical support services provided by a combination of OEMs, software suppliers and a competent integrator partner. These are the experts. They know their platforms and they provide high levels of technical knowledge and experience along with analytical tools to assist with timely assessment of the root cause of the plant’s immediate downtime or production inefficiencies. The OEM and software suppliers generally are most capable of troubleshooting intricate hardware- and software-related issues specific to their equipment and platforms. The integrator is also capable of troubleshooting hardware and software problems, but is especially adept at helping production with functional and operational problems. The integrator typically has the system knowledge since they, most likely, created the application code running the process, machines or systems experiencing the immediate problems.
The deployment of IIoT technology is the third, and very essential, component contributing to the ability of the OT engineer and remote support resources to efficiently and quickly assist production with resolving issues. When properly specified, designed and deployed, IIoT can provide a wealth of real-time and historical raw data and information on instrumentation, control devices, machines, skids, work cells, and environmental and operational conditions. Device and equipment manufacturers are rapidly building into their offerings the intelligence, storage and connectivity to provide a treasure trove of data on not just the normal operation of the device or component but information on the health and performance of their devices or components as well. This information can be instantaneously accessed, displayed, historized, analyzed, reported on and used by both the on-site OT engineer and the remote technical support experts. IIoT is bringing an elevated level of timely and on-target troubleshooting as well as system failure avoidance and high availability through predictive analytics.
The fourth critical component is the OT network itself. The network needs to be well-designed, very robust and secure, must have bandwidth expansion capabilities, and should adhere to OT industry standards such as Converged Plantwide Ethernet (CPwE). The OT network provides the data and information pipeline needed by the OT engineer, OEMs, software suppliers and partner integrator(s) so long as proper network segmentation and OT security is in place. Existing OT networks might need attention and remediation, but the right OT network partner can help upgrade the communication backbone while maximizing the return on capex.
Manufacturing companies will continue to look for opportunities to drive down production support costs while increasing output and maintaining high quality. Keeping head count low for technical staff does not necessarily mean compromising the ability to meet the stressful demands of supporting daily production. Quite the contrary. Companies should capitalize on the evolving technology of IIoT combined with contracting services for remote technical support to supplement their “lean and mean” on-site staff. It’s conceivable that, done properly, manufacturers can achieve a higher level of operational efficiency and experience greater successes. Get qualified and experienced partners engaged in helping take your company to higher levels of manufacturing efficiency.
Steve Malyszko, P.E., is president and CEO of Malisko Engineering Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). See Malisko Engineering’s profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.