Primacy of Information

Aug. 9, 2012
A confluence of trends around mobility, always-on networks and information is having a tremendous effect upon automation and manufacturing.

Things always seem to come in bunches when you’re studying something.

I had just finished writing my article for the July issue of Automation World about where the worlds of automation and Lean manufacturing come together—mostly around information. Then, because I’m on the technical committee of MESA International (the Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association, which is focused on improving operations management), I proofed a couple of white papers. Julie Fraser, an analyst working with MESA, has done some outstanding research looking at manufacturing companies over the past few years. One of the white papers reflects her latest research.

Although you must become a premium MESA member to see entire reports, I’ll give you a summation: Companies that have a regular discipline about collecting and using information tend to perform better than those who don’t.

My research into Lean practices often revealed companies who have constructed creative ways to automatically compile and display information. They have had more success—and more successful Lean events—than those who try a Lean approach but fail to use data.

>> Visit bit.ly/awhistorians to find products, feature articles, videos and columns on all things historians. 

Some data collection can just come from the automation system into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet or a standard data historian. Others use a more sophisticated MES/MOM application. Either works, depending upon your particular needs. Check out this month’s article by Renee Robbins Bassett on historians for more on the topic.

You might also just check out all the benefits of becoming a MESA member and learn how to improve your processes with information (www.mesa.org).

Network is the computer
The primacy of information is inextricably linked to the ability to get at relevant data points. Google’s developer conference in late June yielded some interesting automation-related news. That’s because much of what Google is doing is sort of a fulfillment of a statement (or wish) from Sun’s Scott McNealy that the network is the computer. Google has based its vision on the connected world and online applications. Not surprisingly, at about the same time I saw a Gartner report that said Microsoft Windows will slowly drift off to oblivion as a desktop product.

Let me throw a couple of other ideas at this. Tony Perkins, who had skyrocketed and then crashed with the technology business magazine Red Herring started a Website several years ago called Always On (www.aonetwork.com) based on the premise that we are “always on” the network. Always On morphed (or “pivoted,” to use a contemporary Silicon Valley term) to a live conference company. See, it was a desktop site, but we aren’t “always on” with desktop technology. We’re always on with a smart phone, and less so but close with an iPad or other tablet.

So what does this have to do with industrial automation? Some time ago, I attended the ACP Thin Client user conference. Part of its “value add” is the value of the network over the value of a heavy-weight PC as a work tool. I see several automation companies playing with these light-weight, always-on mobile tools for operations, technicians and engineers—even, or especially, for manufacturing executives. Certainly, there is a confluence of trends around mobility, always-on networks and information that is having a tremendous effect upon automation and manufacturing.

And that effect is positive. At Achema, the large chemical industry trade show in Germany held in June, organizers issued a report saying, “Automation technology is a major factor which drives industry forward."

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