Rockwell Automation has firsthand experience in helping manufacturing partners become more agile to respond to new business conditions, like those created by the coronavirus.

Rockwell helped Hengchang Machinery increase its production capacity from 150 to 500 face masks per minute. At a distillery, the challenge was to convert production lines from making alcohol to making hand sanitizer for hospitals and medical centers.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

Keith Higgins, vice president of Digital Transformation for Rockwell Automation, said that transformations like these show the power of an integrated supply chain and intelligent operations.

“When all this is over, businesses will have uncovered tools that are really productive in helping them manage their business and in planning for the next disruption,” he said.

Higgins said that the most successful digital transformation projects start with the desired business outcome and then figure out how to accomplish that.

“Lots of customers are in a stage of enlightenment with all the new data they have about their operations,” he said. “People also are starting to understand the context around that data, what machine it came from, what time of day, and what batch.”

Higgins said that analytics and machine learning are the first phase of digital transformation, and he has seen many clients start with this type of project.

A new report from Nokia and ABI Research, “Digitalization and 4G/5G in Manufacturing” found that manufacturers are looking to digital transformation projects to modernize operations and reduce downtime. Survey respondents listed these top buying priorities over the next three years:

  • Machine/equipment automation upgrades 47%
  • Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) initiatives (sensors, devices, IoT platforms) 41%
  • Cybersecurity 39%
  • Cloud infrastructure (public, private, hybrid) 37%

The report included the business priorities for digitization projects for each sector:

  • Automotive: More likely to be concerned with increasing capacity, flexibility, and traceability
  • Consumer goods: Downtime and efficiency are highest concerns
  • Machinery: Addressing aging infrastructure, quality goals, increasing capacity, and reporting capabilities

Many areas such as augmented reality, data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and material handling systems upgrades go hand in hand. The survey was conducted in late 2019 and included 602 manufacturing directors and plant managers at automotive, consumer goods, and machinery companies in the US, Germany, Japan, China, India, Australia, the UK, Canada, and France.

Integrating IT and OT operations

Higgins said that companies that are serious about digital transformation have to get information technology and operational technology (OT) departments working more closely together. Companies need a team with a budget and members from IT and OT departments to identify the best candidates for automation.

“There’s valuable data in the OT domain, in the manufacturing lines and in the plant but all the analytical tools are in the IT domain,” he said.

Connecting manufacturing execution systems with ERP systems and supply chain management tools can make it easier for companies to respond to a change in demand.

“Manufacturers need more agility to change lines over and make respirators instead of automobile parts,” he said.

GE Healthcare used Vuforia Expert Capture to accelerate ventilator production training for 300 employees. The augmented reality platform allows an employee to record a first-person implementation of a procedure by using an AR headset. AR platforms can capture institutional knowledge from older employers getting ready to retire and help new employees get up to speed quickly.

“You can create and annotate an AR experience, and it can be published and other employees can see it,” Higgins said.

In 2018, Rockwell Automation invested $1 billion into PTC, a Boston firm that built ThingWorx, an industrial IoT platform, and Vuforia Expert Capture.

PTC is offering Vuforia Chalk–another augmented reality service–for free during the pandemic. This augmented reality service allows an onsite employee to conduct a video call with an off-site person for help with maintenance and repairs. Each person can draw on the screen to highlight a particular control or a sequence of actions.

Augmented reality platforms can be an easy entry point for manufacturers that want to start the digital transformation process, Higgins said.

“Simple tools like augmented reality have a short time to activate,” Higgins said.

Digital transformation infrastructure

Higgins said that agile manufacturing requires the ability to design and test a product virtually using digital twins and a digital thread, a communication framework that allows a connected data flow and integrated view of the asset’s data.

Emulate 3D, a company recently acquired by Rockwell, creates virtual reality versions of production lines.

“You need that kind of modeling to make sure as you plan changes that nothing breaks and everything integrates with existing technologies,” he said.

Rockwell has acquired seven companies over the last four years to expand its automation portfolio, including MESTech, a digital solutions consulting, and systems integration services firm, and Emulate3D, a software developer for simulating and emulating industrial automation systems.

Higgins said that most companies are likely in a holding pattern for any big decisions. For companies that are still moving forward with digitization projects, asset management and overall equipment effectiveness are two good places to start.

Vuphoria Expert Capture is an augmented reality platform that allows an employee to record a procedure by using an AR headset and share it with other employees.
Image: PTC