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The future is about more than product spec

03 November 2015

David Nicholl, UK sales director for Rockwell Automation, believes that vendor competition, based on product specification alone, is now a thing of the past.

There is no doubt in my mind that there will be a continued and perhaps steepening curve towards solutions involving extended service arrangements in the future, and there are several reasons for this. 

Recently a Frost & Sullivan analyst said that ‘the age of products is coming to an end and we are entering an age of services’. I don’t believe that it was meant to be taken too literally – certainly in the manufacturing and automation environments – as products are at the core of the solutions needed to make things; but there are plenty of reasons to think that what can already be observed as a trend, is likely to be a genuine paradigm shift in years to come.

Rockwell Automation has been working hard to build and develop its services offering across its portfolio of automation solutions. This comes much more as a response to the needs of the market and the potential and convergence of new technologies than as a stated business development objective. Manufacturers need to be assured that the solutions they are buying will improve efficiency or productivity. This often involves migrating from a discrete, off-the-shelf approach to purchasing to a connected, integrated, highly visible solution that helps manufacturers better visualise the manufacturing process and supply chain. 

Such systems offer numerous advantages, including as the ability to perform real-time condition monitoring, to deliver remote support, to implement fast and customisable changes to the product line, to aid product traceability, or develop virtualisation and best-practice modelling. In many cases, elements of this, not to mention the complex safety ramifications of this new manufacturing environment, are best achieved through an extended relationship with the companies who develop and maintain the solutions – the vendors, systems integrators and even the OEMs, who can also offer various other benefits such as the initial system design, maintenance, spares holding and rapid response issues management – services by any other name. 

What does seem to be firmly in the past is the age of technology competing on product specifications alone – such is the rate of progress that vendors are able to offer high levels of product and control system specification throughout their ranges. Competition for the fastest processors or most memory, for example, is fairly moot today. In the same way as it’s moot in much consumer technology – the level of performance of even small devices such as a mobile phone vastly outstrips the performance possible in much more expensive (and far bigger) devices of 15-20 years ago. 

Integration and convergence
To continue the analogy, smart phones are now sold on what they offer the user in terms of benefits to the way the consumer lives life; efficiency and data benefits that allow them to make better decisions. The huge uptake of integrated health related apps and peripherals are a good example of this, as is the convergence of functionality across platforms. 

It’s now entirely possible (if still mostly in the domain of early adopters) to use a smartphone to operate the central heating at home; then use it to check if you should expect delays on the journey home; then to watch a video during the commute, while perhaps answering a few work emails; then to arrive at home and continue watching the same media without interruption on your Smart TV (in your pre-warmed house) while ‘second screening’ with your phone to see how many footsteps the integrated pedometer recorded and decide if you deserve that second slice of cake after your calorie calculated dinner.

While the product (the mobile phone) is integral to this, it’s the vision and benefit of a connected lifestyle that makes the consumer buy it and drives the reality of the experience. What’s more, the services element is clear to see. Your Netflix subscription and your central heating provider are offering intelligent services across your platforms and across your life, while your health app is promising you more control and visibility to live a healthier lifestyle. Bring this model back into the manufacturing environment and those early adopters are reaping extensive profitability or sustainability benefits along similar lines. By centralising and harmonising the data involved in the manufacturing process, intelligent decisions can be made in real time. Functions can be appraised and operated remotely in real time, while operational data – not the amount of footsteps you take, but perhaps the amount of energy being used, or the amount of actual wear on a moving part - can be used to manage maintenance and reduce unplanned downtime.

Adapting to the future 
The so-called Internet of Things is based upon the idea that more and more ‘things’ (components/machines/devices) are connected to the internet. This gives rise to grand visions for the future of manufacturing and initiatives such as Industry 4.0 which herald an industrial revolution in how this connectivity will transform manufacturing to new levels of efficiency, product customisation, serialisation and traceability. Rockwell Automation can see that the reality and boundless possibility of Industry 4.0 is still some way into the future for many manufacturers, but much of the technology that will enable it is already available. Through its Connected Enterprise initiative which leverages strategic alliances with communication leaders such as Cisco and software/analytics experts such as Microsoft, it can offer customers a clear roadmap to integrating the Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) which allows them to make more informed decisions in every aspect of their process.  As all enterprises are different, each connected enterprise solution is unique and should be designed in partnership with the specific needs of the end user in mind. This in itself is an example of the transition from product to product + services that is shaping the way that companies are working together to unlock the potential of technology.

The changes in the way manufacturing facilities work also have ramifications for other manufacturer pressure points, such as safety and security. With more complex machinery interacting with other parts of the process, safety is now an area of specialism which manufacturers of all sizes look to safety vendors for help with. Designing production processes with safety equipment and procedures which meet the standards needed to adhere to safety legislation is an area that Rockwell Automation has long been a leader in. Far beyond the many safety products available, it offers a range of training, consultancy and global services. In fact, in this way, safety is perhaps ahead of the general curve in the so called ‘servitisation’ trend. 

Security is another area affected by the uptake of connectivity and visualisation. With data now being transferred internally, via the internet and in many cases being stored ‘on the cloud’, sensitive, business critical information is no longer only behind the factory gates. It would be wrong to suggest that this is a new issue – any manufacturer that keeps business critical information on a computer networked to the internet -  which is nearly all manufacturers operating today – is potentially at risk of being hacked. What is developing however, is the amount of data which needs to be deliberately made available to partners and service providers. Again, the solution is not as simple as a firewall – if it ever was. Rockwell Automation has long been working closely with leading security bodies around the world to develop best practises and to offer services to our customers to help them develop a ‘defence-in-depth’ approach including high-tech and low-tech procedures, safeguards and practices that helps make their data much safer.

Welcoming the Age of Services
The rapid growth of the world’s consumers means that supplying the future needs of people presents an opportunity for manufacturers. This is set against the finite resources of the planet and means that efficiency and sustainability are vital to making it possible. Automation technology is, perhaps, the most important single enabler and those manufacturers who are left behind will not survive. But there are very few, if any, manufacturers that can make it alone. The benefits to working closely with the companies who provide the technology and equipment that they use to create products give those who embrace the age of services, data and connectivity a competitive edge. It is the stated objective of  Rockwell Automation to make its customers more productive and the world more sustainable – and its offering now  includes more services than ever before. 

Is the age of products coming to an end? No, it is part of a new age where where technology and IP enabled products are facilitating more services from the experts allowing companies to focus on their core values and hence making the use of products more profitable, safer, more intuitive and better integrated to drive shareholder value – the ultimate aim of any enterprise.


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