Moving collaboration technology to the manufacturing plant floor

Monday November 19, 2018
Written by Eric Ehlers, Cisco
November 19, 2018 – The modernization of the factory is changing the way manufacturers are conducting their operations by connecting the entire business.

The factory floor, formerly isolated, is now connected and producing vast amounts of data whose analysis is used to improve business operations, reduce downtime through predictive maintenance programs and integrate complex supply chains. The siloes that existed between operations technology (OT) and information technology (IT) are now converging around new solutions with focused projects around the Internet of Things (IoT) and improving end-to-end security are just a few examples. An underlining foundation to this evolution of manufacturing is more focused collaboration across teams with integration of all this new data that is being produced.

The reality of the manufacturing industry today is that many teams are dispersed across the globe, whether engineering, operations, supply chain or sales teams. They all need to communicate securely on a regular basis. Collaboration technology has been in place for years, either within the enterprise or the carpeted space. However, when it comes to collaborating directly on the factory floor, it has been a challenge. In many cases, factories are harsh environments – they are noisy, and there is a lot of interference from machines that can make communications difficult. This challenge has resulted in the continued use of older technology such as two-way radios.

Technology has shifted now, and modern collaboration technology is very secure and viable on the plant floor for a host of applications. Industrial Ethernet and wireless advancements support higher data rates and throughput, and help create coverage across a connected factory. This advancement enables workers to take advantage of mobility with the ability to access voice, video and data on their handheld devices.

Overcome challenges with collaboration technology
Some of the areas where manufacturers can take advantage of collaboration technology:
  1. Improving their new product introduction (NPI) process. With the use of team rooms and video conferencing, multiple teams can work through ideation concepts, design and development. Email or phone is often an inefficient mode of working through complex details. Having the ability to share and annotate technical documents in real time means that the latest versions are always available and shared in a central, secure location.
  2. Leveraging collaboration technology for remote maintenance. Collaboration technology helps teams respond faster to downtime or to any issues on the plant floor. Video conferencing allows remote experts to view and resolve efforts at the source without having to be directly onsite. Messaging apps provide for a connected workforce, so workers can communicate across the plant in real time.
  3. Archiving and documentation. The ability to access key documents and diagrams in a central location can assist with troubleshooting and help improve processes, and also promote workplace safety.
  4. Integration of collaboration technology with IoT. IoT technology enables more communication and insight into the machine performance on the factory floor. This advancement means machines can share real-time updates on performance, and broadcast alerts on machine health issues. Integration of those communications with collaboration technology opens up an array of transformative possibilities. Open-application programming interface (API) allows multiple technologies to connect and communicate with one another. As an example, an alert triggers critical personnel to interact in a designated incident “response room.” Those users then communicate via calls, video conferencing and chat as a means of mitigating the issue.
Bring collaboration technology to the factory floor
To successfully deploy collaboration technology, consider the following:
  1. Change management: Consider how collaboration technology will impact existing processes. Before any changes occur, make sure to document all existing processes and then outline where any changes via collaboration technology might take place. Training will be essential to ensure users don’t default to the old way of doing things.
  2. Security: It’s critical to ensure collaboration tools don’t compromise an organization’s security. Collaboration technology involves multiple users and devices engaging from numerous sites, often remotely. Remote access security measures are critical. Additionally, collaboration enables the exchange of knowledge sharing that could contain sensitive information or intellectual property (IP). Collaboration platforms should support end-to-end encryption to keep content safe.
  3. Infrastructure: As noted earlier, there have been tremendous leaps in networking technology on the factory floor. Companies should ensure their infrastructure is robust and up to date so they can enjoy the full benefits of collaboration technology.
The benefits of collaboration technology are no longer limited to carpeted space. Collaboration technology is mature and ready to support manufacturing efforts. The time is now for manufacturers to embrace collaboration technology and streamline their operations.

Eric Ehlers is the marketing manager in the SME, manufacturing and energy verticals at Cisco. He is filling in for regular columnist Jennifer Rideout while she is on leave. 

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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