When Performing Asset Maintenance, Don’t Forget About Your MES

When Performing Asset Maintenance, Don’t Forget About Your MES

In today’s push for higher productivity and capital optimization, plant reliability has taken the front row as the go-to application. Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven predictive maintenance is one of the leading technologies that is being promoted to drive productivity, quality, and sustainability improvement. Manufacturers are now more focused on asset maintenance as a profit improvement tool than ever before. As these programs are implemented, one area that is often neglected is the Manufacturing Execution System (MES) and related analytics applications. Over time, the performance of these systems can impact critical production assets and throughput. This type of efficiency degradation can result in not only slower performance, but an underutilization of key production and quality systems. 

Asset Maintenance Maturity Model

There are several approaches to defining and executing a MES maintenance strategy. The simplest, but least effective, is Reactive maintenance. I like to refer to this strategy as a “run till fail” or “fix it when it breaks” approach. This might work for light bulbs in your house, but today, it is hardly a best practice for manufacturers producing complex, highly engineered products. With unplanned downtime the greatest source of losing productivity, it seems intuitive that every system that could impact this potential adverse event should be closely monitored. Yet an MES tune-up is seldom proactively performed or reviewed until something breaks. 

Beyond a Reactive approach, Preventive maintenance is the next level of sophistication. With this approach, assets are put on periodic inspection and service routines. Changing the oil and filter in your car every 6,000 miles is a classic example as is changing the air filter on your ventilation system. The concept is to perform activities that prevent unplanned downtime caused by equipment failure by ensuring basic maintenance activities are regularly performed. 

Since most manufacturers have adopted Preventive maintenance as their baseline strategy, they should think about including their MES in a calendar-based maintenance program. More on the specifics in a bit.

Predictive maintenance follows with the next level of sophistication. With Predictive maintenance, data from assets is used to analyze performance and detect impending problems. Vibration and/or temperature monitoring of bearings is a common example. When data analysis (often with machine learning or AI) reveals a change from what is deemed a “normal” behavior pattern, an inspection alert is triggered so a mechanic can investigate the issue during a planned downtime period and perform additional lubrication or replace as necessary. This approach allows for assets to be operated longer if the problem can wait until a regularly scheduled downtime instead of having to prioritize service.  

MES Maintenance

Since your MES is a critical production asset, it too should be put on a Preventive asset maintenance schedule. If a piece of equipment is changed on the plant floor, it may necessitate changes to workflow just as adding a new product or variant. As your production workflows change, new ones are often just added to the MES database. Alternatively, operators may change roles, have new responsibilities, and require different approval cycles or authorities within the MES. From a database perspective, suppliers may change part numbers or also have additional or different qualifiers attached to them. 

All these activities will start to occupy more space in the MES database, growing its size. This can impact the time it takes to access and display information, often frustrating users with slower screen response times. As user frustration with the system increases, willingness to use it decreases. This trickle-down effect will negatively impact production data integrity and reliability.

When thinking about MES Preventive asset maintenance activities, you should consider either performing an assessment with the following activities at a time interval that is appropriate to the volatility of your manufacturing environment or outsourcing this maintenance strategy to your service provider:

  1. Purge the system of unused workflows that reference equipment no longer in service.
  2. Inventory older workflows that have not been used in a long time and decide if you really need them; just how we remove applications from our smartphones that are no longer being used, it is a good practice to apply this strategy to workflows no longer in use. 
  3. Routinely validate user profiles to ensure that staff has proper permissions; as roles change, people should not be given multiple identities; individuals who are no longer with the company should have their profiles deleted (which should be done as soon as they leave anyway).
  4. Reconcile the parts database with the master maintained in the ERP or other procurement tools used.
  5. Perform standard IT system maintenance activities such as defragmenting the disk structure associated with an on-premises solution, or doing database compression on Cloud-based solutions. This will not only improve response times it will lower costs as most Cloud services bill by storage used as well as other factors.

As MES themselves evolve, expect Predictive maintenance capabilities within the applications to become commonplace and more sophisticated. Next-generation MES solutions will continually analyze their performance and automatically flag workflows that are impacted by equipment no longer in use. Future MES solutions will self-monitor user activities and recommend when adjustments might be appropriate.  

Since your MES is at the heart of shop floor operations, treat it like any other production asset and maintain it to ensure optimum performance.

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Here is Why Edge Computing Technology Should be Part of Your Industry 4.0 Strategy

edge computing

Is edge computing as important as some experts are saying? In a word, the answer is “Yes.” The fact is, with the growth of intelligent devices and production robotics, most manufacturing data is now generated at the edge of the network, in operations and execution. In other words, on the plant floor and related places like incoming parts inspection and shipping. 

Just how much data are we talking about? The answer varies widely for different manufacturers, but a single machine on a production line can generate gigabytes of data every day. A smart factory can produce several petabytes a week.

However, only a tiny percentage of this data is analyzed and acted on in real-time. The very data that is most relevant to real-time action—to what’s happening right there in the factory—is not readily available to the people and machines that need it.

Now, edge computing is starting to change that picture. 

A Simple Idea With Far-Reaching Consequences

Edge computing simply means processing data locally, where it’s produced, instead of sending it up the line for processing by other systems like MES, ERP, or data warehouses. 

Consider a robotic system on a production line. It typically reports to a Manufacturing Execution System, possibly in the cloud, which may then send the data to a warehouse to clean and contextualize before pushing it out to decision-makers or other connected systems. By contrast, with edge computing, data is processed and distributed right at the source. This can be done by the device itself or by a local server. Only data that needs to be centralized is sent up the stack.

Gartner research suggests that by 2025, three-fourths of data processing across multiple industries will take place at the edge of the network. Here are 5 reasons why manufacturers should make edge computing part of their digital strategy.

  1. Improve Performance

Edge computing improves performance, not just of your network and systems, but of your operations by providing faster response to people and devices. With edge computing, data is immediately available for critical operational applications such as real-time quality monitoring, production alerts, or rapid decision-making. What’s more, it offloads MES and other systems, as well as the overall network, improving their performance in the bargain. 

The positive effects of edge computing ripple outward to the whole organization. According to IBM, “Because data does not traverse over a network to a cloud or data center to be processed, latency is significantly reduced. Edge computing — and mobile edge computing on 5G networks — enables faster and more comprehensive data analysis, creating the opportunity for deeper insights, faster response times, and improved customer experiences.”

  1. Increase the ROI on Smart Devices

The performance gains of edge computing are especially appealing because the key infrastructure to make it happen—smart devices and the IIoT—are already in place in manufacturing enterprises, or soon will be. Intelligence is built into everything these days. Strategic Finance Magazine reports that by 2023, more than 46 billion IoT-connected devices will be in use. 

From robots on the production line to autonomous vehicles in the warehouse to augmented reality devices like smart glasses, digital technology is present throughout most manufacturing enterprises. The ability to utilize that resource could be a key advantage over the competition. In other words, edge computing offers large rewards for relatively small investments, and that’s always a strong business argument.

  1. Improve Resilience and Reliability

The old saying “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” applies here. When all your data is funneled through one system, you could be in trouble if something goes wrong. And it will because no system is perfect. Edge computing enables many operations to continue even if central systems are down or connections are broken. It takes advantage of the fact that processing, storage, and applications are distributed around the organization so that no single disruption can bring down your operations.

Edge computing is almost always involved in the critical day-to-day operations of an organization. When you consider the cost of manufacturing downtime, avoiding just one widespread failure could justify the cost of implementing an edge computing strategy in your enterprise.

  1. Scale More Easily

If every new capability at the edge requires integrating and connecting it with the overall system, scaling can be complicated. Expanding a data center alone can be an expensive proposition, even without worrying about all the interconnections that must be updated. Edge computing takes advantage of the cloud to provide storage, and in some cases SaaS applications, to keep things local.

With so much intelligence now being bundled into devices, it’s a relatively simple matter to scale local capabilities as needed. Furthermore, the risk is low. Making changes in the central data center has implications for the whole enterprise. Adding a local server for edge processing carries only negligible risk.

  1. Ease IT/OT Convergence

It may seem counter-intuitive but adding devices at the edge can not only offer a more secure architecture than a centralized system, but it can also help further an organization’s IT/OT convergence strategy. IDC’s Jonathan Lang and Kevin Prouty explain further in their report, The Blurred Lines at the Edge of OT. “As industrial enterprises pursue edge computing to resolve some of the challenges they face in scaling connectivity of assets or managing new and expanding workloads within operations, the functionality of edge computing is beginning to blur with the functionality of traditional OT systems … edge systems play an important functional and tactical role in enabling the intelligence of OT.” This all points to the growing convergence between not only these two sets of systems (IT and OT), but also of the data that is being shared as manufacturing organizations continue to strive in becoming a Model-based Enterprise

Regardless of your position or utilization of edge computing, one thing remains certain. The need for improving resilience with greater flexibility in technology platforms will continue to be important. Edge computing is still an evolving technology that relies on easy connectivity and integration with multiple systems and devices to improve access to data for improved decision support. In my decision, that sounds like a smart way to place future investments in an Industry 4.0 type of strategy.

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iBase-t Completes Manufacturing Think Tank Series

virtual think tank

The think tank series collaboration between Frost & Sullivan and iBase-t focused on how to simplify
and gain traction from digital transformation and Industry 4.0 programs.

FOOTHILL RANCH, Calif. – Sept. 22, 2021 iBase-t, the company that simplifies how complex products are built and maintained, today announced the completion of a think tank series with Frost & Sullivan. The discussion brought together industry experts to gain insights on successfully achieving a digital transformation across manufacturing operations.

The findings from the think tank discussion were the basis for three published reports: 

  • Digital Persistence: The Path to Digital MRO” 
  • Achieving the Promise of an MES” 
  • Becoming a Digital Enterprise Starts with a Digital Thread”

Digital Persistence: The Path to Digital MRO,” brought together representatives from Lockheed Martin, FRC East, and Magellan Aerospace. The research identified that while digital adoption has been slow in the Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul industry, enterprises now recognize the value of new digital tools and processes. The limits of paper-based operations became acutely understood during the pandemic, which placed big pressure to utilize remote working. 

Achieving the Promise of an MES” was based on a discussion with experts from Pratt & Whitney and Northrop Grumman. The report validated the business value of implementing an MES while pointing to what can be done to overcome the typical challenges with such a project. 

Becoming a Digital Enterprise Starts with a Digital Thread” combined executives from Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon Technologies to explain their vision of becoming a model-based enterprise, which starts with a digital thread. A maturity curve became apparent reflecting each organization’s progress on digitalizing their operations and the value of connecting and sharing data as part of an Industry 4.0 strategy.

“We’re delighted to have teamed up with Frost & Sullivan to share our vision for the future of manufacturing,” said Tom Hennessey, CMO, iBase-t. “The findings published in these reports should help both large enterprise and midsized manufacturers who build complex, highly engineered products in addressing the challenges of how to migrate over to completely digital operations. These challenges are increasingly becoming more manageable, and can be accomplished today with fewer resources and budget.”

iBase-t is committed to helping shape the future of the digital, model-based enterprise. This research project is one of several future forums and reports that will be shared – coupled with the company’s model-based practice, to help mid-sized and large enterprise manufacturers further advance their digital journeys.

“MES is the layer that ultimately all of these IoT devices are going to be mostly interacting with,” suggested Erwin Balmater, Solution Architect at Northrop Grumman, as shared in the research report, Achieving the Promise of a Manufacturing Execution System.

For complimentary access to the reports, please click the following links:

Digital Persistence: The Path to Digital MRO


Achieving the Promise of an MES


Becoming a Digital Enterprise Starts with a Digital Thread


About iBase-t
iBase-t is a software company that simplifies how complex products are built and maintained. Founded in Southern California in 1986, iBase-t solutions ensure digital continuity across manufacturing, quality, and maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) operations on a global scale. The iSeries, powered by Solumina, is a cloud-native platform that establishes a digital ecosystem to drive innovation and improve operational performance. With offices in the U.S., UK, France, and India, iBase-t customers include Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney, and Textron. Learn more at iBase-t.com

What Makes a Successful Digital Leader?

digital leader

You can find hundreds if not thousands of web pages, articles, white papers, and webinars about digital transformation. With good reason too, since digital technology is sweeping across industries, including all sectors of manufacturing.

This raises an important question: What kind of leadership is required to steer an enterprise through these times of change? Or more simply, what makes a good digital leader? After all, if digital technology is transforming business, it’s also transforming business leadership.

While much has been written about the question, there’s not much agreement on the answer. One article says digital leaders need to be “creative, curious, experimental, innovative, collaborative, and have strong interpersonal skills.” Information Age cites seven characteristics, including team-building and a love of technology. Some experts claim there are four key traits, others say there are ten.

I can’t settle the debate, but I do have my own perspective on the question. Instead of listing the qualifications needed, what about starting with what challenges need to be overcome? Those leaders that can effectively address these challenges could then be identified as being leaders. 

Based on industry research and my own experience, here are five challenges that digital leaders face and the qualities I think they’ll need to succeed.

  1. The Pace of Change & Flexibility

If the world seems to be changing faster every year, that’s because it is. Technology is changing everything, from our workplaces to our societies to our governments. Many scientists and futurists see a coming technological singularity, where technology advances accelerate exponentially like a runaway train. It is still to be determined if this outcome will occur, however, digital leaders must be more flexible than ever before. This flexibility must encompass not just a willingness to change, but an actual eagerness to change. Being resolute and staying the course, once the traits of a good leader, are more of a liability than an asset in the digital age. 

  1. Uncertainty & Boldness

With change comes uncertainty. The fact is, no one really knows what technology we’ll be embracing five or ten years from now, or what impact it will have. Who could have predicted the profound influence of the Internet and social media on our lives? Smartphones have upended many aspects of our society in less than a generation. Facing all this uncertainty, digital leaders will have to make bold decisions anyway. Granted, they’ll have more information available to them, thanks to digital technology such as big data and Artificial Intelligence. But they won’t have a crystal ball. Boldness has always been an ingredient to business success, and I expect that it will continue to be so in the coming years.

  1. Business Value & Focus

As everything moves faster and transformation roils industries, the competition out there is tougher than ever. Margins for error are smaller and the cost of mistakes greater. More importantly, it is easy to get caught up in the technology of transformation while neglecting the reason for the investment – to help drive business value, be it to increase efficiency or deliver superior customer satisfaction. After all, the technology decisions being made now will have a big impact on the future profitability of the enterprise in the next few years. Managing this transformation impacts many parts of the business, so maintaining a dedicated focus is paramount.

  1. Complexity & Broad Knowledge

Digital technology is rightly touted for breaking down the traditional silos of operation. But it also puts extra importance on every technology decision. This is not just a technical issue of establishing connectivity or interoperability. Rather, it’s a matter of understanding what each business operation needs, how it interacts with others, and what’s the best course for the enterprise as a whole. This has always been true, but the digital transformation has raised the stakes. A digital leader has to be informed and curious about every aspect of the business and should build a support team to fill any gaps. More than ever, knowledge and access to data is power.

  1. Customer Expectations & An Ear to the Ground

Customers having the final say is nothing new, but before the digital revolution, they had a harder time being heard. That’s sure changed! The same technology that’s changing your enterprise is also transforming the customer experience. This is true whether your customers are personal online shoppers or global procurement officers. There are several dimensions to this challenge, including the experience your technology creates, the data you’re able to collect about your customers and their experience, how well you analyze that data, and most important of all, how effectively you use it. That last part is where digital leaders will earn their pay. Using digital technology to enhance customer interaction is the future of business.

Those are my five challenges and the traits that digital leaders must have to meet them. Whether you agree with this list or not, there’s no doubt that business leadership is being transformed right along with businesses themselves. And while there’s no definitive answer to what makes a good digital leader, one thing is clear: enterprises are rapidly changing. As an article from MIT’s Sloan School of Management states, “Leaders must develop new skills to effectively guide their organizations into this uncertain future.”

The digital future is arriving quickly. Will you be ready to lead the charge?

becoming a digital enterprise starts with a digital thread

Cloud MES Offers a Path to Rapid Scale-up for Emergent Manufacturing Industries

Cloud MES Offers a Path to Rapid Scale-up for Emergent Manufacturing Industries

As new hi-tech products enter the marketplace such as Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, industrial drones, or AI-driven vision devices, the pioneering startups driving this phenomenon must move quickly to capture market attention while managing customer expectations. This delicate balancing act can be taxing on resources, capital, and the overall organization of emergent manufacturers. In these instances, a Cloud-based Manufacturing Execution System (MES) delivered as a managed service can be a win-win proposition that should be seriously considered. 

For many startups, their business systems are often spreadsheet-based. Similarly, production systems are often based on paper or spreadsheets. As these companies grow, they turn to small business solutions for financial and sales management but struggle to find adequate production management tools that can deliver the functionality they need.  

Many of the affordable PC-based MES solutions either lack critical functionality for regulated industries, such as A&D and Medical Device Manufacturing, or can not scale fast enough as the business expands. These on-premises MES solutions also require system administration that can draw critical resources away from running the business, a considerable challenge to an organization experiencing exponential growth.

3 Reasons to Look to the Cloud

Cloud solutions are now gaining traction in the manufacturing industry for many reasons. Manufacturers have already made Cloud ERP their de facto choice today with many ERP vendors reporting more than 70% of new sales as Cloud-based. Operational solutions such as EH&S, Maintenance, Quality, and MES are all moving in this same direction with anywhere from 30% to 60% of new deployments being Cloud-based, depending on application category.  

Here are three compelling reasons that help explain why businesses are moving MES to the Cloud:

  1. Faster Deployment – Cloud-based solutions can be deployed much quicker than their on-premises counterparts, with a difference of up to 6-12 months between these two options. This difference can result in both substantial cost savings to deploy and a faster time-to-value.  
  2. Improved Security – Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions hosted on major platforms such as those offered by Microsoft or Amazon provide a high level of security that is already built-in.  While there remains a need for operational security, platform-level security is a given since the Cloud providers base much of their competitive positioning on how secure they are.  Some even offer DoD IL5 security as an option.
  3. Remote Support – Since this type of solution resides in the Cloud, support capabilities are provided remotely. With global Cloud availability and many SaaS solution providers leveraging this capability to operate globally, 24/7 remote support has become the norm. Usually, on-premises solutions either don’t have this capability or charge a premium to provide it.

3 Reasons Why Cloud MES Makes Sense for Hi-Tech Emergent Manufacturers

For manufacturers operating in fast-growing, highly regulated industries such as satellite internet companies, industrial drones, or autonomous vehicles, Cloud-based MES makes even more sense.  

Here are three compelling reasons these types of manufacturers should consider a Cloud MES:

  1. Access to Specialized Functionality – Many industries have MES solutions specifically tailored to their manufacturing needs and regulatory environment. These high-capability MES solutions typically cost more than generic MES solutions that are designed to serve a less demanding and much larger market. By taking a Cloud-based delivery approach, an emergent manufacturer using a SaaS-based delivery model can more closely associate the cost paid for these higher capabilities to the value received.  
  2. Matching Growth – When a business is growing exponentially, its software needs will also grow exponentially.  With an on-premises solution, the unlocking of additional capacity typically comes in steps. This means you can either be limited in accessing needed capacity or will have to pay for more capacity sooner than you need it. Once a SaaS solution has been established, when based on a microservices architecture, often all that is needed to unlock greater scalability or new features is to “flip a switch.”
  3. Convert CapEx to OpEx Spending – Manufacturers experiencing exponential growth are often venture-funded so must spend capital wisely. It makes far more sense to spend capital on R&D and production capacity than software. Adopting a Cloud MES avoids considerable upfront spending that can be better utilized elsewhere.

If you are an emerging manufacturer in an industry such as micro/LEO satellites, industrial drones, or are building other hi-tech products that support other high growth industries, it just makes a lot of sense to consider what Cloud options exist for all of your business software needs, including ERP, MES and the rest. You get access to Tier One capability at an affordable cost that can scale at the same pace as your business expands.

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iBase-t Launches Solumina iSeries i050 with Enhanced Supplier Quality Management

iBase-t Launches Solumina iSeries i050 with Expanded Supplier Quality Management Capabilities External Inbox

Latest release simplifies how supplier quality can be managed with new, out-of-the-box features 

FOOTHILL RANCH, Calif. – Sept. 16, 2021 iBase-t, the company that simplifies how complex products are built and maintained, today announced the general availability of Solumina iSeries version i050. Key features of this release include the ability to support greater operational flexibility to support manufacturer’s need for “anywhere” operations. The iSeries, with its embedded microservices architecture, simplifies how manufacturers can manage production and integrated quality processes associated with building and maintaining intricate, highly engineered products. 

Solumina iSeries i050, which builds on the company’s existing i040 platform, expands Supplier Quality Management capabilities to address quality issues faster across the supply chain, providing more time to address issues quickly before becoming a discrepancy. New web-based technician and supervisor dashboards provide better sign-on experiences and reporting features. A new supplier quality portal offers enhanced, secure, and segregated visibility of key performance factors.

“Our continued investment in iSeries reflects the company’s commitment to delivering a comprehensive, web-based user experience for every iBase-t customer,” said Sung Kim, Chief Technology Officer, iBase-t. “iSeries is unmatched by the competition in the field of complex, discrete manufacturing operations. Its microservices architecture makes it easy to add new features without disrupting production. This critical capability helps our customers to accelerate their digital transformation and Industry 4.0 programs.”

As a cloud-native solution, Solumina iSeries delivers compelling benefits beyond easing how new features and updates are added. The iSeries offers resource-constrained manufacturers and suppliers an affordable approach to accelerate their digital transformation strategy, including the adoption and utilization of new transformative technologies. iSeries can be deployed as a cloud-hosted, managed SaaS solution. Attractive subscription pricing options exist to provide greater ease and predictability in managing this cost as an annual recurring expense.

About iBase-t
iBase-t is a software company that simplifies how complex products are built and maintained. Founded in Southern California in 1986, iBase-t solutions ensure digital continuity across manufacturing, quality, and maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) operations on a global scale. The iSeries, powered by Solumina, is a cloud-native platform that establishes a digital ecosystem to drive innovation and improve operational performance. With offices in the U.S., UK, France, and India, iBase-t customers include Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney, and Textron. Learn more at iBase-t.com

AI in Manufacturing: What Will it Look and Sound Like?

Artificial Intelligence in Manufacturing: What Will it Look and Sound Like?

There is a growing revolution based on the huge volumes of data now being generated as part of manufacturing processes. Manufacturers are now understanding that there is incredible value in the collection, processing, and conclusions that can be drawn from this data. One use has drawn considerable attention: artificial intelligence or machine learning, and how it is changing how manufacturers operate and run their business. AI is already in use and having an impact, from smart industrial robots to data analytics and machine learning. The focus of this article is to explore what the future might look, and sound like in the years to come. Based on the expected continued adoption of this technology, the likelihood of change is highly probable.

Read this article for a background perspective on how AI has already begun to revolutionize how manufacturing gets done, “Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Manufacturing: The Revolution is Here.”

We can get some idea of where things are headed by looking at consumer markets. The success of Alexa, Siri, and other similar technologies demonstrates that we humans like AI we can talk to. That’s why researchers are working on things like “Conversational AI Platforms” (CAPS), which is AI that can carry on human-like conversations. Another, closely related field of research is “Emotion AI.” As its name suggests, Emotion AI is about giving artificial intelligence the ability to read human emotions from their words and facial expressions and respond appropriately.

“May I take your order, human?”

While there is still a long way to go, commercial robots are starting to appear in customer-facing businesses. In Tokyo, Japan, Softbank has opened a café staffed by friendly robot servers. Watch this video to see “Pepper” and “Servi” in action, which is expected to help with the labor shortage of restaurant workers in the pandemic:  

It’s interesting to see how people, especially children, react to robots. Despite their clear robotic appearance, some people can’t help seeing them as almost human. 

The epitome of this trend is the robot Sophie, introduced by Hanson Robotics in 2016. The team behind her creation is not simply trying to make a smart robot; they want to make one that looks and acts human. As Sophie, herself says (with an awkward smile), “I work with humans, so it’s important that people are comfortable around me.” She’s making progress. In 2017, she became a citizen of Saudi Arabia, making her the first artificial being to gain citizenship in any nation.

Sophie is a remarkable machine, capable of holding conversations reasonably well. But no one would confuse her with a real person. Her timing, mannerisms, and phrases are always a little off. This is not meant as a criticism of Sophie or her creators. It’s just pointing out a fundamental reality. There’s something peculiarly “alive” about facial expressions and voices, and the emotions they convey. It may be a long time before physical machines can look and act truly human. 

But is that what we want – or need – from our artificial intelligence?

Function Over Form

AI with human qualities will have its place in many industries. MIT’s Sloan School of Management cites advertising, automobiles, call centers, mental health, and assisted services as a few examples.

We are already seeing production lines where physical, human-like robots or “Cobots” now work in a manufacturing environment. These robots are seen as a way to help augment what humans can do, under their guidance, to help improve productivity, output, and performance. And, to do so safely and without taking a break! 

Here is a video showing what Ford is now doing with Cobots, working alongside humans, as part of the production process on one of their assembly lines:

It’s easy to dismiss the question of form as secondary in manufacturing, where the function of AI is far more important. And yet, the capability to simulate humans in appearance and speech may be a reality in five or ten years, and there might be advantages we can’t foresee at the moment. At the very least, having an android assistant would be a powerful status symbol. I can think of a few CEOs today that would jump at the chance to have one of the first!

My guess is, we won’t want AI to be too human-like, especially in industries such as manufacturing where it seems unnecessary. But even in service sectors, wouldn’t you want to know whether you’re dealing with a person or a machine? Think about the Softbank café again. What if those robot servers were indistinguishable from humans? Not only would the charm be gone, but there would be something deceptive and a little unsettling about it. (Several science fiction movies come to mind.) So, even if CAPS and Emotion AI are perfected, I wouldn’t be surprised if most practical applications of AI are designed to be slightly imperfect in some way, just so we humans will feel more comfortable. 

Perhaps someday we’ll be surrounded by robots that look and sound just like us, and we won’t know or care. Alexa, what do you think?

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Are You a Digital Disruptor or a Follower?

Are You a Digital Disruptor or a Follower?

Digital transformation is disrupting industries around the world. Not only is that what all the research and experts tell us, but you can see it in your everyday life. Fortunately, you get to choose if you are a digital disruptor or a follower with how you respond – lean into it or run for cover?

Here are five suggestions to help you take charge of the digital transformation now underway in manufacturing, helping you become the digital disruptor.

  1. Carpe Diem. Disruption frightens some people. It makes the future look uncertain (which it is). This can lead to an attitude of “Let’s wait and see how it plays out.” The problem is that the pace of change is accelerating. Taking it slow is no longer a viable strategy. Today, far greater risk exists from waiting and getting left behind. Entire industries are up for grabs in the next few years. The winners will be those enterprises that commit to digital leadership. Now is the perfect time to seize the opportunity and be the digital disruptor, rather than the disrupted. 
  2. Look for game changers. You can’t throw technology at every business problem. Instead, look for something that’s really breakthrough in your industry. Ask, “What opportunity is there in my market where we can make a difference?” Some old-line, traditional industries are behind the curve technologically. If that’s the case for you, there may be a game-changing opportunity that lets you pull away from the pack.

    For example, by providing faster service through a synchronized supply chain, or by creating a better employee experience that enables service deliver from anywhere – to customers anywhere.

    But even in a technology-competitive market, opportunity for breakthroughs still exist. You might have to take a bigger risk as an early adapter, but the potential reward will grow with the risk. Why do you think Amazon is investing millions in automated delivery technology? 

  1. Find partners. There’s a lot of digital technology strategies out there making it hard to know which way to go, so it’s important to look at the company behind the technology. You don’t need a vendor, you need partners. Manufacturers in particular, because of the complexity of your business, need to find partners that share their vision of digital transformation and that can offer robust solutions for their industry that can help pave a path to your organization becoming a digital disruptor.

    Here are three factors to consider when seeking new partners:

  • Does the vendor/partner’s product roadmap match where you want to go? You’ll be living with their platform for years, so make sure it can carry you forward.
  • Can they support a smooth implementation and rollout? The first efforts and results will have a major effect on the ultimate success of your digital transformation, so getting off to a good start is crucial.
  • Do they have the resources to support future deployments and training, wherever needed? If you plan to expand and open new plants in other parts of the world, you’ll need your vendors to be there too. 
  1. Stay agile. Don’t think of digital transformation as one technology, one project, or even one goal. The whole point of digital transformation is to make your enterprise nimble, aware, smart, and responsive. In other words, always changing. This applies to the technology itself. Whatever specific choices you make, whether it’s an enterprise platform like MES or a simple time tracking application, make sure it’s agile.

    This means that your digital solution must be able to work with multiple devices and share information easily with other systems. Further, the platforms themselves need to be agile. For example, a modern manufacturing execution system based on a microservices architecture provides a huge amount of future agility with regards to future upgrades, feature additions, and overall systems interoperability. This way you are not locked into a single platform or operating system, which gives you lots of flexibility for changing when you need to.

  1. Be open. The one-vendor-for-everything approach may seem safe, especially if that vendor is a major player. But digital transformation is changing the rules. Modern enterprise applications are open and easily connected, allowing manufacturers to choose best-of-breed solutions for each type of application and then build a unified digital ecosystem. 


Read this article on identifying the right number of systems providers, 3 Reasons Why the Single Vendor Model is Losing Ground to the Digital Ecosystem


A decade or more ago, this would have been the challenging path to take. But today, choosing best-of-breed can be easier than trying to extend one vendor’s products across the whole enterprise. Plus, in the long run, it puts you in control of what path you take, not the technology or the vendor.

I wish I had a magic formula for success in this new world, but I am sure that those who embrace digital transformation have a better chance of coming out ahead than those who wait for change to be inflicted on them. You need to be the digital disruptor, not the disrupted, and that will depend as much on the people making the decisions as on the technologies they choose.

becoming a digital enterprise starts with a digital thread

Are You Being Held Hostage by Your Monolithic Enterprise Application Provider?

Are You Being Held Hostage by Your Monolithic Enterprise Application Provider?

For many manufacturers, investments made in an enterprise application to run their business have been significant and ongoing. Yet often these companies struggle to fully complete the original vision, failing to capture all the expected benefits. Often the decision to drive towards a single-vendor architecture – typically driven by a top-down directive – creates a monolithic enterprise application environment where attainment of the original project objectives is never met. When this outcome is expected, organizations suffer from what could be described as an organizational “Stockholm Syndrome.” The belief that mandated large IT projects will never be done creates a situation where the employees accept that they are being held “hostage” by their existing vendors, with no way to escape. 

This situation can take years to develop. Since it happens slowly over time, often it is not even evident that the malady exists. But, once in place, it can seriously inhibit an organization’s ability to maximize the benefits from investing in more modern systems, typically required when undertaking a digital transformation strategy. 

As an outsider looking in, I often wonder why companies fail to consider better and more adaptable alternatives to a monolithic enterprise application. Sometimes, it seems that it might be the availability of capital, a lack of labor skilled in new technology, or some other constraint that explains the hesitancy to move forward. 

The reality is that in many cases, a person or group of people in senior management built their career by recommending and then implementing that monolithic enterprise application. This cycle can even start with that individual’s prior employer. Relationships have been built, a sense of trust has been put in place, and the decision-maker has come to expect that tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars just must be spent to maintain an IT/OT infrastructure that never really delivers the result it should. 

25 Years of Analyst Perspective

One of the very first vendor reference checks I did as an analyst in the late 1990s was for a large ERP vendor’s solution.  When I called the vendor-provided contact and asked them why they chose their current solution, the response was an honest “I didn’t – it was forced on me by management.” They then went on to say that they wanted an alternative product, but that the decision had already been made, so they were going to just have to live with it. 

When fielding end-user analyst inquiry calls regarding large enterprise application suites, I could almost guarantee what the response was going to be. If it was from the IT department, it often was “give me information to prove that the current enterprise solution vendor solution is at par with the specialist solution.” If it was from an operations person, it was “give me information to prove my choice of a specialist solution is better than what the existing enterprise vendor could deliver.” More often than not, someone from “management” that controlled the budget or had sufficient political power, would then opt to keep the existing vendor solution in place.

In defense of the larger vendors, most have managed to deliver what manufacturers have wanted from a functional perspective and over time have adopted better user interfaces to make their products competitive with specialist providers. But, as they have grown their user bases to cover a broader range of industries and functional footprints, many continue to struggle to demonstrate the agility of the best-in-class specialist application providers.

Defining the Stockholm Syndrome

If you read more about this syndrome, one theme becomes clear. It is not a mental condition, but more of a coping mechanism. Those placed in highly stressful, threatening environments will often embrace their captor as a friend or a trusted advisor. By choosing to believe that everything will work out, their condition becomes more manageable. 

Read this article on Technical Debt for another perspective on the costs that can add up when being a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome, How A Microservices Architecture Can Reduce Technical Debt.

How Frustration with Mediocrity Becomes Commitment to Mediocrity 

Nearly every enterprise application suite evolved from an ERP solution, which evolved from an accounting application. Each tended to have user interfaces and accounting-based data models. 

One of my early observations about the user experience of most ERP applications was that they “had a user interface only a mother or an accountant could love”. Often when the monolithic applications were deployed, they met resistance from operations staff since they had to be beaten into shape to provide the functionality needed on the shop floor. Even though vendors today have resolved many of these usability issues, they often still lack the adaptability requirements of business today. And, more importantly, the perception that the application was not created to deliver a “nice” user experience, but to do a predefined activity. Hence, the condition we now have today. 

So why do businesses seem to be committed to the status quo when there are better alternatives? As mentioned above, sometimes the assumption is that it is a lack of capital or access to skills, but the reality is in many cases organizations often become invested so deeply in the status quo they begin to identify with the solution they have in place.  

This is analogous to Stockholm Syndrome. If driven by a simple fear of change, the reluctance to adopt a better alternative can be overcome by showing how new solutions can improve their ability to do their jobs. But when the commitment to a tool that doesn’t provide the value needed to be successful in today’s business environment is so strong that it becomes irrational, the business likely is suffering from organizational Stockholm Syndrome, and likely is on a path to decline.

Adaptability Will Win Out

In the end, businesses are driven by profit and survival. Most can overcome dependence on a single vendor thanks to the advances in openness and interconnectivity driving technology today. One of the best lessons from the coronavirus pandemic has been that adaptability is key to survival. Solution providers that provide the tools that give businesses that adaptability will ultimately win out.

becoming a digital enterprise starts with a digital thread