The Factory Buzz

I love factory tours.

Busy manufacturing plants have a great buzz about them. The hum and clatter of machinery is only one dimension of the full sensory experience.  It’s often accompanied by a pervasive sense of purpose and urgency by every operator, creating a sense of energy throughout the facility.

A couple weeks back I spent the week visiting several large-scale manufacturers.

The tour had three purposes; educate, learn and sell. It’s my favorite kind of visit when the line between all three blurs into lively problem solving sessions.

I toured plant after plant and met with dozens of engineers and managers. All were intent on improving efficiency, safety, energy consumption, uptime and predictability. These weren’t the polished “show off the good stuff” tours that a plant might give its visiting execs or customers. These were the insider’s version – exposing the skeletons and dirty laundry as part of their quest to engage outside partners to see where new technology and outside thinking might help them improve their operations.

Every plant I toured was impressive. Three shifts, thousands of workers. And every plant was rich with opportunity to improve. Some of those opportunities were no surprise. Like the universal desire to reduce energy consumption, and a frustration that they had no data to act on or measure, other than the six or seven figure energy bill they receive at the end of each month for the entire facility.

Other opportunities were more surprising.  Like plants lacking real time visibility into the productivity rate of their lines against the day’s requirements. Even some plants with years of investment into modern MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems) expressed frustrations over bad data or stranded assets or production lines that lack integration into their system.

The challenge of feeding these systems good data in real time, or near real time when dealing with a mix of technologies and protocols was a daunting one for a number of plants. That translated into a lack of visibility – operating in the dark. While there are many ways to solve that problem, the trick is doing it cost effectively and without impacting ongoing operations.

Another opportunity evident in several plants was the facilities services themselves. While a particular line may have had impressive automation and maybe even integration into an MES system, its successful operation was dependent on services from the facility in order to run effectively, and those services were unmeasured and unmanaged. Problem with the compressed air supply, energy, environmental controls, contamination  all were sources of unplanned downtime or other productivity losses, and virtually all of those plant services were unmeasured (and as a result, unmanaged).  Today we can solve those problems, and with minimal cost – including installation and system integration. We demonstrated a capability to measure those services to problems could be identified early, or even avoided all together.

There was a re-occurring theme all week long. Managers in every department are hungry for data that will give them improved insight into their operations, and they’re frustrated with the difficulty of acquiring that data without significant investments and modification of existing IT or automation systems.

The B+B team has been busy developing products that simplify the process of gathering data from existing systems and assets, and doing it in a way that doesn’t impact existing automation or IT systems. And we’ve been integrating some forward looking strategies at the same time, emphasizing the concept of decoupling information from assets from applications to break that cycle of automation silo’s.

Products like our SmartSwarm 351 Modbus Eavesdropper, and our Wzzard Wireless Sensing platform both make it easy to get data from existing assets and devices and publish that data so one or many applications can easily use it, turning unmeasured, unmanaged processes into something that can be managed and optimized – reducing operational costs and increasing efficiency and predictability. Those are objectives that create a buzz of energy and enthusiasm with any operations engineer or manager.

If you’ve got unmeasured assets, processes or services in your facility, let us know. We’d love to chat about products, technologies and strategies to give you the tools get your team buzzing.

— Mike