Operational Data in Manufacturing: Tapping the Real-Time Value

ASluminum cans coming through an assemply line
03/25/2019

As noted by PwC, "global demand for manufactured products is growing at a snail's pace," with just 3.4 percent increase in output this year. Multiple factors contribute to the current climate, including depressed oil prices and reduced foreign trade levels.

With no quick fixes in sight, companies are looking for ways to improve productivity wherever possible, since even small gains help put manufacturers ahead of the competition. The result? Businesses need better ways to mine real-time operational data in manufacturing and remain industry leaders.

Economies of Scale

Businesses in the manufacturing sector recognize the need for investment, but PwC data points to new product or service introduction and R&D as the big winners here — with more than half of organizations planning to boost spending in these areas. Information technology, meanwhile, takes a distant third place.

It makes sense: The breakneck pace of technology evolution (combined with historically functional manufacturing processes) creates a "not broken, don't fix it" situation where companies are wary of investment that could do more harm than good to their bottom line.

According to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, however, there's potential for change. In a recent interview, Sight Machine CEO John Sobel notes that while multiple venture-backed startups have offered small-scale solutions to source specific operational data in manufacturing, "the focus has really shifted from local problems to scale solutions."

As a result, there's growing enterprise demand for large-scale solutions that are capable of capturing operational data at scale and in real time. This data can then be presented in such a way that encourages companies to take immediate action. The demand has prompted a market shift, with both startups and established analytics providers looking for the at-scale solution that both delivers actionable insight and positions them ahead of the competition.

The New Order

Necessary shifts to digitally-enabled technologies come with real gains for manufacturing companies. According to PwC, anticipated benefits from digitization include 3 percent additional revenue and 3.6 percent cost reduction per year. The professional services firm points to one oil-and-gas sector case study that saw the use of wireless sensors boost output by 10 percent while cutting unforeseen outages in half.

Understanding the need for real-time insight is one thing, but what tools are available to help organizations make the transition from existing processes to cutting-edge data collection? Front-runners include:

  • Mixed Reality — As noted by Business News Daily, mixed reality tools could help companies identify problems in real time and optimize efficiency. Here's the idea: By combining internet-connected sensor data with virtual reality (VR) glasses or augmented reality (AR) headsets, employees can "see" inside machinery to pinpoint problems or perform preventive maintenance. The key here is visualization; taking relevant operational data and converting it into visual cues or instructions that workers can follow.
  • Process Mining — While key performance indicators (KPIs) remain critical for efficient manufacturing, new process-based mining tools leverage event logs to create real-time representations of any process "as is." This allows enterprises to quickly obtain a snapshot of any process at any time, instead of waiting for analysis solutions to check large data sets for recurring patterns.
  • Improved ERP — To effectively mine operational data in manufacturing, companies need tools capable of sourcing, compiling and immediately delivering insight. According to Industry Week, however, organizations must also ensure that existing solutions — such as ERP deployments — are providing reliable and relevant information to new analytics tools. If legacy ERP tools aren't configured properly or leverage out-of-date information silos, new tools will invariably produce less-than-ideal results. Before deploying any new operational data application, companies are well-served by updating (or replacing) current ERPs.

With production growth slowing, small efficiency increases can provide a big impact for manufacturing companies. The caveat? These increases demand digital tools capable of identifying, analyzing and delivering actionable insight in real time.