Real-Time Manufacturing Trends

The world of industrial automation is changing rapidly, generating a need for real-time manufacturing.  Most industrialized nations are seeing their economies shift from labor-rich to labor-scarce, forcing plants to automate to keep costs down.  At the same time, consumers are demanding more customized products and sustainable use of resources, which requires smarter and more versatile production lines.  Adding to the challenge, obtaining raw materials and parts has become less predictable since the start of the pandemic, creating a need for more dynamic and flexible supply chains.

Responding to these circumstances, executives and managers are increasingly adopting new ways of managing their businesses, according to Bill Lydon at  In a recent report, The Digitalization Dozen, he wrote: “The foundations of manufacturing and production are being reshaped by their integration into a comprehensive real-time business system, creating more efficient and responsive production to increase sales and profits.”

Real-time data

Real-time business systems rely on real-time data.  ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems of the past were not directly synchronized with operations, providing data that was weeks or months old.  That led to the use of MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems) which are quicker, but add a layer of cost, complexity, and fragility.  What is needed, according to Lydon, is to rebuild the enterprise as a real-time manufacturing business.

A few pioneering companies have read the writing on the wall, and are now looking at ways to implement the necessary changes.  Melanie Kalmar, spokesperson for Dow Corporation said, “We are really focused on being a real-time company, using and leveraging the data we have to drive better decisions, be a more sustainable company, and a favored company.”

Many others will follow, says Lydon.  He explains how digital communication in real time unifies the corporate vision by providing accurate and timely data for interested parties throughout the enterprise, as well as among suppliers and customers.  This data transparency keeps employees at all levels well informed, improving their decisions, which leads in turn to greater success.

Closed-loop operations

Lydon envisions a digital manufacturing architecture that is real-time, synchronized, and optimized through the use of “closed loop operations of IT and Operational Technology OT groups.”  By this he means that data coming from sensors and field equipment, edge devices, plant or process operations gets passed in real time to business systems like digital twin models and analytical tools, including artificial intelligence engines.  These systems pass commands back to the OT systems in a closed loop, all in real time.

Needless to say, this must all be based on secure, bidirectional real-time data communications.  Security is essential because plant and operations networks must be kept isolated, completely separate from business networks.  And robust, bidirectional real-time communication is necessary for closed-loop performance.  Otherwise it would be like driving a car with a three-second lag between the steering wheel, brake pedal, and tires―a recipe for disaster.

Other trends

Two other trends in industrial automation are helping make real-time manufacturing work.  The first is wide-spread use of open standards like TCP and OPC (Open Process Communication).  Open data communication standards like these give multiple vendors a chance to compete and contribute, which brings new ideas and more product choices for system designers and integrators.  Industrial systems are complex, with a wide variety of sensors, devices, tools, machines, and other components that need to be connected seamlessly.  Standard protocols make these connections possible.

A second trend is towards less programming, by using off-the-shelf software and services.  These make it easier, faster, and cheaper for a system integrator to test, build, and deliver a working automation system. A generation of engineers who had to build solutions from scratch is retiring, just as systems are growing more complex.  The new generation understands the value of using ready-made tools to quickly implement solutions, rather than starting from the ground up on each new project.

From our perspective, these trends all point towards a need for products and services that provide secure, real-time industrial data communications.  Our latest release, DataHub 10, runs both on-site or in the cloud, connects OT to IT securely through DMZs, and supports real-time networking of live and historical data. It is well positioned to lead the way for digital and real-time manufacturing.

A New Normal for Manufacturing?

The industrialized world is still reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it may not be going away any time soon. We may not like it, but we are learning how to live with it. And some of us are looking ahead to see what the long-term impacts might be. Is the future darker or brighter?

IndustryWeek magazine recently published an article by Artem Kroupenev, Vice President of Strategy at Augury, who asks the question: What Will Manufacturing’s New Normal Be After COVID-19? The answer, he opines, involves healthy doses of automation, digitization, and remote access.

He notes that many companies saw supply chains break and raw material stocks dry up as countries closed borders. Those relying on just-in-time production were hit especially hard. In the same way, whole countries experienced shortages of manufactured goods that could not be imported.

To protect against future disruptions, Kroupenev predicts a revival in domestic manufacturing, and a decoupling of supply chains. But things will be different from 20 or 30 years ago. There will be a strong push, he says, towards automation in the new domestic industries, and companies will rely far more on digitization to manage supply chains.

A Key to Success

A vital key to success in this new reality will be data, and the ability to send and receive it securely across the Internet. “For manufacturing, greater connectivity will mean significantly accelerated deployment of Industrial IoT, including sensing, data visualization, remote collaboration tools and AI-based insights across their operations,” Kroupenev said. “Control-tower view of data and insights across the whole operation will become a standard component of running a manufacturing organization.”

Even before the pandemic, early adopters of digitization had gained an average 7% revenue growth advantage, according to a McKinsey report cited in the article. They have been able to increase efficiency through better supply chain integration, more effective operations, and more flexible maintenance programs. They have made the transition to remote access more smoothly. Companies that do not adopt this new normal will suffer, says Kroupenev, and may eventually fail.

Embracing the new normal does not need to be difficult. Skkynet’s software and services work equally well with legacy systems as new installations. There is no reason to take risks. Something as simple as making a standard-protocol connection to a secure, proven technology can transport a company into a safer, more reliable world.

Manufacturers Go Digital to Stay Safe

There’s a war on―a new kind of war.  The enemy is sneaky but deadly, taking thousands of casualties.  A new breed of soldier fights for us, on the hospital ward front lines, equipped with specialized weapons and armor.  Every country is on high alert, fighting this war together.  And, as in many other wars, manufacturers are deeply involved.

A recent survey conducted by ARC Advisory Group and asked over 100 manufacturers large and small around the world what’s happening with them right now, and what they are doing or should have done to prepare for this pandemic.  The results show a wide range of responses, with a common theme―do what it takes to stay safe.

Some firms have had to decrease production and lay off workers.  Others, with the ability to do so, are moving production to locations less impacted by the virus.  Quite a few companies have gone on the offense, switching production to high-demand items.  Car makers are turning out ventilation equipment.  Distilleries are providing alcohol for hand sanitizers.  Some fashion and textile companies are focusing on personal protective gear. The pharmaceutical industry has ramped up production of test kits and other medical supplies. And of course, producers of disinfectants and paper products are working overtime.

Employees Need to Stay Safe

Almost all companies are also on the defense, trying to stay safe, protecting employees who must remain on-site with distancing and physical barriers, installing robots where possible, and by speeding up digital transformation programs, allowing people to work remotely.

“We learned that some manufacturers wish they had put more thought and effort into digital transformation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report said. “But many of these companies have since adapted and are now adding new digital technologies and digitally enabled solutions as opportunities arise.”

What kinds of technologies?  They are using artificial intelligence (AI) software to gather real-time production data to calculate risk for what-if scenarios and market fluctuations.  They employ optimization software linked to online processes for in-plant predictive maintenance and off-site supply chain management.  They are connecting OT staff to production data for remote monitoring, and IT staff to analytical tools. All of these technologies rely on secure, real-time connectivity to process data, which Skkynet provides.

The current situation for most companies is in flux.  In-house changes happen daily, while product demand and supply chains are also variable.  At the time of the survey many companies were still preparing for the pandemic, or were operating with reduced staff, shortages, and lack of market data. Among employees, for over 80% of respondents, the three main changes were new sanitation policies, social distancing, and working remotely.

Based on this survey, the ARC Advisory Group recommends increasing adoption of digital technology.  This will allow companies to provide their staff with the abilities to stay safe by working and collaborating remotely, monitoring production systems through digital dashboards.  Along with this recommendation comes moving data and applications to the cloud, as well as improved IT capabilities and cybersecurity. Most companies surveyed were either grateful to be on the path to digital transformation, or making it a top priority to be there.

Digital Twins Thrive on Data Integration

Digital twins. The term was coined only ten years ago, but the concept is rapidly becoming a must-have in the manufacturing sector. Last year a Gartner poll found that 62 percent of respondents expect to be using digital twin technology by the end of this year, although only 13 percent of them were actually using it at the time. A key factor in this sudden interest is that “digital twins are delivering business value and have become part of enterprise IoT and digital strategies.”

What exactly are digital twins, and why are they getting so much attention lately? A digital twin is made up of three basic components: a physical system, a virtual representation of it, and the data that flows between them. The physical system could be an individual device, a complex machine, a whole production line, or even an entire factory. The virtual representation can be as complex as necessary to represent the system. The data connection keeps the virtual twin as closely in sync as possible with the physical twin, often tracking and updating changes in real time.

The Value and Challenge of Data Integration

A digital twin operating in isolation is useful, but the real rewards come through making connections. Data integration between multiple sub-components of a digital twin, or between multiple digital twins, is key when advancing beyond simple pilot projects. “The ability to integrate digital twins with each other will be a differentiating factor in the future, as physical assets and equipment evolve,” says the Gartner report.

There are at least three types of relationships:

  • Hierarchical, in which digital twins can be grouped together into increasingly complex assemblies, such as when the digital twins for several pieces of equipment are grouped into a larger digital twin for a whole production line.
  • Associational, where a virtual twin for one system is connected to a virtual twin in another system, in the same way that their physical counterparts are interrelated, such as wind turbines connected to a power grid.
  • Peer-to-peer, for similar or identical equipment or systems working together, like the engines of a jet airplane.

Making these connections is not always easy. A recent publication from the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), titled A Short Introduction to Digital Twins puts it this way, “Since the information comes from different sources, at different points in time and in different formats, establishing such relations in an automatic way is one of the major challenges in designing digital twins.”

The IIC article briefly discusses some of the technical aspects this kind of integration, such as:

  • Connectivity, the necessary first step for data integration.
  • Information synchronization keeps a virtual twin in sync with its physical twin, and among multiple connected twins, maintaining a history and/or real-time status, as required.
  • APIs allow digital twins to interact with other components of a system, and possibly with other digital twins as well.
  • Deployment between the edge and the cloud pushes data beyond the OT (Operations Technology) domain to the IT domain, that is, from the physical twin to the virtual twin.
  • Interoperability between systems from different vendors may be necessary to gain a more complete picture of the total system functionality.

Another useful resource, Digital Twin Demystified from ARC Advisory Group, identifes data connectivity, collection, tracking volume & fidelity, and ensuring the quality of real-time data as being “key challenges associated with using real-time and operational data” in digital twins.

A Good Fit

Skkynet’s software and services are well-positioned to provide the kind of data integration that digital twins require. Most data on an industrial system is available to an OPC client like the DataHub, which ensures robust connectivity. Virtually any other connection to or between digital twins, such as from legacy hardware or custom software, is possible using the DataHub’s open APIs.

Real-time data mirroring between DataHubs can handle the synchronization needed for tight correlation between the physical and virtual systems. The secure-by-design architecture of DHTP provides a proven way to connect twins across insecure networks or the Internet, even through a DMZ, to ensure the highest level of security for both the physical twin on the OT side, as well as the virtual twin on the IT side.

By supporting the most popular industrial communications protocols, and through secure, real-time data mirroring, Skkynet software and services are often used to build fully integrated systems out of components from different vendors. A recent example of this is in the TANAP project in which DataHub software was used to integrate OPC A&E (Alarm and Event) data from ABB systems with other suppliers, effectively creating a virtual digital twin of the entire 1800 km pipeline.

Digital twinning can be seen as one aspect of the whole area of digital transformation in industry. As companies move towards digitizing their operations, the ability to create a virtual twin of each component, machine, production line, or plant, and connecting that twin to their IT systems will put better control of production into the hands of managers and executives, leading to greater efficiencies. The success of this undertaking, at every step of the way, depends on secure data integration among the digital twins.

Case Study: Papeterie de Mandeure, France

French paper company, Papeterie de Mandeure, accesses data from their OT system and feeds it to their IT system and MES, using the DataHub.

Food Processing Plants Look to IIoT to Stay Competitive

A recent article in Food Engineering collected insights and opinions from executives at a number of industrial automation and control companies regarding how IIoT, Industrie 4.0 and digitization of the plant floor will play out in the area of food and beverage manufacturing.

The shared view was that these new initiatives are worth pursuing in food processing, as long as they are balanced with caution and good judgement. The article said, “While no one interviewed would suggest that a food or beverage manufacturer convert all its manufacturing software systems to an industrial internet of things (IIoT) platform in one fell swoop, many would suggest that to remain competitive in a fast-changing consumer product environment, it wouldn’t be a bad idea—for those that haven’t already done so—to embark on the ‘digitalization journey’ now.”

Skkynet’s contribution to the conversation focused on the value of connecting real-time production data to management, and what that might look like in the context of food processing. We also shared our thoughts on a number of other topics, such as the value of secure-by-design data communications, but these were outside the scope of the final published article.