How Digital Workflows Improve Manufacturing Operations

March 26, 2021
Operations workflow software is about more than directing workers from point A to point B; it can also dramatically reduce downtime, improve cybersecurity, and reduce labor and maintenance costs.

Amid all the interest in the digital transformation of the manufacturing and processing industries, most discussions tend to focus on data and analytics. These factors are, of course, integral to industry’s digital transformation but ultimately, the analysis of manufacturing operations data is about delivering visibility.

Having visibility into production assets and using that info to drive improvements is the key to modern manufacturing—and business in general these days. However, in the operations technology space, visibility on the plant floor has been a challenge due to the number of different systems and equipment used from a variety of suppliers, which often leads to an environment that's more reactive than proactive. 

To learn how visibility into assets enables digital workflow software to provide information in near real time to direct engineers, operators, and technicians in their day-to-day functions, we connected with James Destro, head of product for the manufacturing industries at ServiceNow, for a recent episode of the “Automation World Gets Your Questions Answered” podcast series. ServiceNow is a supplier of digital workflow software that connects people, functions and systems across organizations. 

“A workflow platform is essentially a system of action that helps guide people through managed tasks,” explained Destro. “Specifically, in the context of asset visibility and management, our platform helps discover operations technology assets and systems to give a clear view of what the technology landscape in a plant looks like. And once that foundation is established, asset management principles—including things like configuration management, asset lifecycle management, and service management—can be applied on top of those to increase the efficiency of your operational processes.”

Data modeling
As intuitive as modern manufacturing software is today, one of the well-recognized requirements to getting any kind of operational software up and running is building the data models that power the software. This process is quite a bit more involved than using the software itself, as inputting the data and building these models correctly is critical to the proper functioning of the software.

Describing how this process works with the ServiceNow platform, Destro said, “Managing automation equipment requires an ability to model operations technologies—level zero to three of the Purdue Model—and sometimes even level three and a half, or the DMZ, of the Purdue model. These kinds of equipment have special characteristics, attributes, and features, and their application in the manufacturing environment is very specific. The model used by ServiceNow allows us to ingest and handle specific automation capabilities. To develop this, we've introduced 20 new technology classes, which include many new abilities to model the relationships of these automation systems. For example, the model considers how systems are connected, which type of system manages a different type of system, what kind of data exchanges happens among these automation systems, and what the criticality and relationship is between those systems.

One ServiceNow customer has seen a 25% improvement in downtime incidents based on incident response and recovery lifecycles driven by the software. 

Describing how data from these disparate systems on the factory floor are transformed into workflows for shop floor personnel, Destro said, “To execute workflows in an operation technology system, understanding the manufacturing context is critical. The digital twin model of assets used by the ServiceNow platform can be used in conjunction with the operations technology model, such as the Purdue Model. This aids in understanding the context of the plant floor technologies and their relationships, together with context such as location, upstream or downstream materials, and process flow. When you leverage those two together, you can truly drive workflow both in context of the automation technology and equipment there, but also in the context of manufacturing to understand the process and implications to production or manufacturing flow that would occur.”

Providing an example of how this works in practice, Destro explained that asset management is about providing workflows to efficiently plan and execute maintenance, upgrades, and configuration activities. “One of the critical use cases our customers commonly approach with our platform is understanding their overall asset inventory and the lifecycle management of these assets,” he said. “This includes the automated discovery of the assets, where we’re able to find what technology is on the shop floor and bring that into a unified data structure and database—the software, the firmware, and the assets themselves, as well as the assignment and review process of the associated workflows. From there, a complete set of processes around change management can be delivered to effectively update and maintain the compliance of the operations technology system.”

Essential to this kind of capability in workflow software is the ability to look at the shop floor “holistically to drive a view across the entire operations and technology landscape, such that you can really improve the asset management framework,” said Destro.

Whenever the connection of assets in a manufacturing environment to a network is discussed, security is one of the main concerns. Explaining how ServiceNow approaches this issue, Destro said, “Once the assets are automatically discovered, the ServiceNow platform—through integration of capabilities from our security partners—the system automatically identifies known vulnerabilities with these technologies. These vulnerabilities are then assessed for risk and impact.”

Working through the deployment process, which includes setting up the platform, automated discovery and configuration of assets and operations technology systems, integrating with security providers, and then establishing workflow and patterns needed for overall asset management typically takes a couple of weeks.

At this point, Destro said the next step is to develop a vulnerability response plan, so that these critical security issues can be addressed—not in isolation, but in conjunction with the manufacturing process. “Similar patterns exist for continuous threat detection, where we may detect a security incident which would require a response framework to address those incidents and allow for the workflow to minimize the impact of those incidents and minimize the risk footprint.”

Implementation Timeline
Despite the detailed data modeling and security aspects associated with the deployment of workflow management software, Destro said ServiceNow users are often up and running with the software in a matter of weeks.

“Working through the deployment process, which includes setting up the platform, automated discovery and configuration of assets and operations technology systems, integrating with security providers, and then establishing workflow and patterns needed for overall asset management typically takes a couple of weeks,” Destro said. “Then the environment is replicated so that it can be scaled across an entire enterprise. For example, we have a customer that's rolling out our software to more than 100 factories in parallel tracks. They’ve been able to do this in less than a year.

As for end users’ ability to widely deploy workflow management software on their own or with the aid of integrators, Destro said, “We've seen our customers leverage internal operations technology personnel to build out the best practices, the workflows, and the capabilities of the software for their environment. But as the customers progress into implementation, leveraging a systems integrator to do a global deployment can be very beneficial.”

Workflow software benefits
While organizing shop floor personnel workflows is key to optimizing the day-to-day duties of workers and streamlining operations overall, what are the bottom-line benefits that users can expect to see?

Destro said one of the largest and most immediate benefits ServiceNow customers talk about the most is reduction of downtime. “As we think about operations technology or automation systems used in manufacturing, downtime of an automation system could mean downtime of an entire production floor or factory line. And because of that, as we improve the ability to model and manage these operations, we see improved control and governance and a dramatically improved response and recovery from incidents that may cause downtime. Our focus on capturing the knowledge in a workflow platform is really what drives this whole knowledge management environment for how to solve and respond to incidents very quickly.”

One ServiceNow customer mentioned by Destro has seen a 25% improvement in downtime incidents based on incident response and recovery lifecycles driven by the software. Users also see a reduction in labor and maintenance costs by automating the asset management processes as part of operator workflows.

“Reducing the overall risk associated with vulnerabilities and security incidents is a big value for our customers,” Destro said. “All of us have heard time and time again about the increased cyber attacks happening in the critical infrastructure industries,” he said. “Being able to have a proactive cyber security posture against some of these vulnerabilities—and having a very proactive plan for security incident response—is a big driver towards the value” that can be derived from workflow software.

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