One could say that digitalization of manufacturing began with the invention of the programmable logic controller (PLC). Obviously, the pace and extent of digitalization has exponentially accelerated since then, causing Siemens to announce the digital plant within Industry 4.0, the digital revolution.
Manufacturing digitalization encompasses a wide variety of concepts. Search the web for a few minutes and you might come up with data, devices, Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, Big Data, analytics, cloud, virtualization, consolidation and many more. As an integrator, my mind is drawn to the point where integration occurs—at the interface between various digital systems. The digital enterprise, the digital revolution and what has been referred to as the digital ecosystem depend on interfacing various and numerous digital systems in a manner promoting optimization based on a single, data-based truth.
Manufacturers and integrators used to approach digitalization monolithically, securing investment by staying within the ecosystem of a single system vendor. Many continue this approach. Others secure system investments by selecting best-of-breed, standards-based applications, then integrating them.
Here we have a clash. This clash is not simply IT fighting with operations, or the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system vendor fighting over the manufacturing operations management space with the control systems vendor. This clash is more like choosing a rack or tailored suit. Even though monolithic, one-size-fits-all solutions can be tailored to a degree, they demand compromises when fit to any specific manufacturing organization. Best-of-breed solutions are compromised when expensive stitching of the required interfaces is “value-engineered” from the higher initial cost, though we all know that this often compromises lifecycle cost.
What is a manufacturer to do? Thoroughly arguing a self-serving answer minimizes both the importance of recognizing this clash, and the attention each manufacturing organization should give it. The best advice I can offer is to engage a capable, experienced integrator as a trusted advisor. Best-of-breed integrators, such as those certified by the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) and/or recognized with industry awards, can and will willingly invest in understanding your process and business needs, then challenge you to balance needs, wants and cost. Your solution should be your solution, whether you start with a monolithic or best-of-breed approach. Your solution should allow you to rapidly expand and optimize. There really is more profit to be realized from making the best decision.
Timothy S. Matheny, P.E., is the president of ECS Solutions Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about ECS Solutions, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.