Manufacturers are beginning to use machine intelligence, smart sensors, and the Internet of Things (IoT) to create connected environments. There is broad consensus that transitioning to this type of advanced digital infrastructure will help improve visibility into process functions and allow algorithms and processing power to play bigger roles in optimizing the real-time health of critical assets.
“We are at the beginning of this smart machine journey,” says Dean Fitt, SAP solutions manager for enterprise asset management and plant maintenance. “People want to move from reactive maintenance to predictive maintenance. Sensors and other maintenance technologies have been around awhile, but they are being put together in new ways to transform how we maintain these environments.”
Some companies are tackling these challenges by using software, sensors, drives, and controllers to automate existing assets. This approach allows them to extend the useful life of 50-year-old hydraulic presses and hundred-year-old steam engines, for example. It also preserves more funds for situations where buying new assets is the best or only option for adding needed capabilities.
Master data management is essential for real process improvement
Being able to predict when asset maintenance is required is one of the biggest advantages offered by connected environments and IoT. But predictive analytics require both real-time data and detailed records of each facility’s as-built assets.
Ideally, this information, which includes a number of data types, would be defined as master data objects to ensure consistency across enterprise systems and processes. But capturing and standardizing data from disparate systems, digital formats, and hardcopy documents is often a low priority for project teams when they are focused on bringing new assets online.
“The master data is crucial,” says Fitt. “It is the foundation for everything. If you do not have a good foundation, you are building on quicksand.”
That is why organizations should treat master data management as a core function whenever they adopt, maintain, or automate any new or existing assets. Governance, controls, and workflows are essential for using asset data to minimize downtime, enable real-time decision-making, and increase process and worker productivity.
“Technology alone will not ensure accurate data,” says Peter Aynsley-Hartwell, chief technology officer for Utopia Global, Inc., a global data solutions company that focuses on information management. “A lot of people have information they do not trust. As soon as that happens, they begin making incorrect or poor decisions or no decisions at all. And they lose the opportunity to achieve a huge benefit from the information they have.”
Connected environments require a consistent and proactive strategy
As technology continues to evolve, manufacturing processes are likely to become more reliant on machine learning and artificial intelligence. Some manufacturers, distributors, and service companies will probably use processing, logic, and networking to continuously monitor and improve the quality and reliability of their assets.
“We may see some of these concepts make their way into our day-to-day manufacturing operations,” says Aynsley-Hartwell. “Perhaps when we have self-driving cars, they will diagnose and drive themselves to the service provider on their own initiative.”
A simple self-driving system is already in service in Australia, Aynsley-Hartwell notes. Rio Tinto, a British mining company, uses 73 416-ton trucks to haul ore along a fixed route. The vehicles are driverless and use GPS units, radars, and sensors to work 24 hours a day while saving the company 15% on overhead costs.
These technologies are evolving quickly, and numerous companies are working on making their assets more autonomous and “smart.” But none of these optimistic visions of the future will be realized without an effective strategy for acquiring and managing vast amounts of data.
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