Shifting gear: the drive to accelerate digital manufacturing

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The benefits of Industry 4.0 are well known: optimised logistics, process improvements and energy savings are just the beginning.

So why has uptake in the manufacturing sector been comparatively slow? For manufacturers I’ve spoken to, a key reason is a struggle to integrate and scale digital projects effectively. Without the ability to scale, digital manufacturing pilots just don’t stack up in terms of cost and end up being abandoned. But now, that pattern’s changing.

Changing pace in a pandemic

The pandemic has increased the urgency around digital manufacturing, and I’m now seeing more manufacturers rolling-out digital solutions at speed.

For some, the accelerator has been the need to cut costs. Automotive, aerospace and oil and gas in particular have faced significant revenue restrictions recently, so they’re looking for more efficient ways to operate. Travel bans are also making many rethink how they do things. Unable to fly experts out to remote factories to carry out assessments and repairs, manufacturers are investigating digitally enabled remote support options that can make sites much more self-sufficient. Suddenly, factory maintenance and repair carried out by a local employee wearing an augmented reality headset, supported by a remote expert, becomes a viable option – but it takes digitisation.

As the pace of change picks up, manufacturers run the added risk of being left behind. When your competitors are deploying digital manufacturing to reduce their costs and drive revenue, can you afford not to follow suit?

Manufacturers are changing how they think. For so long, factories have operated as silos, behaving like an island, rather than functioning as part of a global model. Digital manufacturing changes this, connecting factories and technology to boost efficiency, without the need for on-site expertise.

Yet, despite such clear benefits, and the significant risks of not adopting digital manufacturing, some businesses are still struggling to get projects off the ground. So, what are the three main barriers to scaling effectively?

Digital manufacturing calls for infrastructure changes

Many manufacturers can’t scale beyond pilots because their existing infrastructure isn’t suitable. They’re starting from a position where most operational technology (OT) isn’t connected to anything outside the factory. And, because it’s impractical to process the OT data in the cloud in an environment where every millisecond counts, manufacturers need to work out how to manage data at the edge, where the level of IT support in the factory is significantly lower than in the data centre. But an edge solution is so much more than deploying devices in the factory; it’s about setting up an infrastructure that can support IoT solutions as well as compute capacity outside the data centre – and many businesses have legacy networks that just can’t do this. This is a wide-ranging change and can involve modernising the LAN, upgrading internet connections and putting in new SD-WAN solutions to move the data that’s not processed at the edge to the cloud securely.

And, to make things even more complex, businesses are being asked to imagine and create a robust edge computing solution when there’s little agreement as to how the edge is going to evolve. Plus, once they’ve decided on what their factory solution looks like, they need to be able to standardise it across their whole business.

End-to-end security is essential

Connecting OT and IT is essential to digital manufacturing – but it brings significant security risks. We know that the majority of malware that gets into factories comes from the IT world. Many current manufacturing systems have vulnerabilities that make them susceptible to cyberattacks. They’re often old and proprietary, with little patching. There’s no device authentication, little password management and no security logs. And, often, these systems are so fragile it’s difficult to scan devices without crashing them. Plus, adding in IoT functionality lengthens system borders and increases the potential attack surface, and once data leaves the factory you need to know it’s distributed securely.

There’s a lot at stake. If you lose a production line even for an hour, you incur a massive loss. And there are potential health and safety issues to consider as well. Recent state-sponsored cyberattacks are going after safety critical systems, creating huge potential for people to get hurt.

It’s vital that security is built in throughout digital manufacturing, and not treated as an afterthought.

Data challenges hold back digital manufacturing

It’s not just vital machinery that’s disconnected — siloed data is another key challenge. Most organisations we work with have some data on the IT side of the business and some on the OT side. They’re also working with lots of different data formats, from Excel spreadsheets to PDFs and video feeds. Factories in different locations often operate their own systems and processes, and propriety software restrictions reinforce the siloed approach.

Digital manufacturing relies on a holistic view of all operations and processes and that means standardising the management and analysis of data. This, in turn, feeds back into the infrastructure question. How can you build a system that delivers the agility and low latency you need to make disruptive technologies effective?

Getting Industry 4.0 up and running

I believe that board level sponsorship, often CIO or CFO, and a secure and scalable infrastructure is key to getting Industry 4.0 up and running. Equally important is the buy-in from the people who run the factories. This starts with identifying an issue that affects multiple sites. For example, too much unplanned downtime or inefficient use of energy - then working with the factory engineers to create a proof of value (POV) with a rapid ROI. The key point is to use a white box model where the solution provider validates the logic and output with the engineers and ensures that they can manage and successfully deploy the models. If the engineers aren’t fully on board with the process the project is likely to fail as it’s an environment they are naturally protective of.

Once the ROI is known, then the savings can be used to build a business case to refresh any infrastructure needed to scale the POV across the organisation. The infrastructure should be looked at holistically starting at the industrial control systems and ending at the cloud or data centre, with everything in between reviewed to see if it’s suitable. In scope would be the fixed factory LAN, 5G and other wireless technologies, edge computing, collaboration tools and cyber security - which should be designed in and not added on.     

This is no easy task - which is where strategic partners like BT can help. We’ve the global reach and breadth of solutions to help our customers digitise their manufacturing operations. For some inspiration, you may want to take a look at our recent fast-track digital transformation project with Belfast Harbour and our whitepaper IoT – the barriers to scaling.

Jose Gastey

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