Getting tangible value through visualisation

19 September 2012

Ellyn Foltz, managing director, Worldwide Process Manufacturing at Microsoft Corp, discusses the issues of visualising and making the best use of the increasing amounts of data that are being created by industry today.

The manufacturing industry has seen a lot of changes in the past few years - the growing competitiveness of emerging markets, pressure to cut costs throughout the supply and value chains and tighter regulatory requirements.

These challenges were prevalent in many conversations at ACHEMA 2012. I spoke with plant engineers and executives from around the world, and one of the themes that stood out was the dual nature of ‘big data’ as a linchpin to success and a source of frustration.
The emergence of big data is no secret. IDC Research estimates that more than 1.8 zettabytes of data were created in 2011 alone,* due to factors such as social interactions, mobile devices, facilities, equipment, R&D, simulations and physical infrastructure.

The potential of big data is no secret either. In May last year, the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) issued findings about the value that could be derived from big data. It said that the manufacturing industry could decrease the cost of product development and assembly by up to half, and could reduce its working capital by around 7%.

Control engineers are on the front line in helping realise such cost savings. However, in order to maintain their competitive edge, manufacturers must develop new methods for mining data. Equally important is the need to expand the data sources drawn upon to provide a more circumspect view of the environment in which they compete.

Typical external data sources focus on the supply chain, utility costs and environmental factors such as ambient air temperature, humidity level and the luminosity of the sun. Open standards and web services have made it easier for control engineers to account for these inputs, as well as factors like customer sentiment.

While customer sentiment might not be within the traditional purview of the control engineer’s job, this concept can have a real impact on decisions related to production levels and where product is created. Having access to this data in real-time can help manufacturers to be more responsive to changes in the market as they happen.

Admittedly, one of the thorniest challenges that big data represents is managing numerous sources and fusing together relevant data points in a manner that helps generate business insight. Microsoft SQL Server 2012 was developed to help companies take on that challenge. SQL Server 2012, released earlier in 2012, scales to the demand of big data and provides tools such as Power Pivot, which can analyse millions of rows of data in a matter of seconds.
Microsoft partner ICONICS is harnessing the analytical power of SQL Server to build business intelligence solutions that help manufacturers cut costs and stay competitive. One ICONICS customer, for example, has been able to integrate information from SQL Server databases and through real-time interfaces such as OPC-UA to hundreds of plant controllers and production equipment assets. This information monitors the manufacturing of specialty chemicals, churning out two to three thousand data points per second. The solution offered by ICONICS combines these data points and provides employees with a three-dimensional virtualisation (current, historical, and future forecast) of that data on virtually any device, at any time of their choosing.

Microsoft and its partners have been working on data visualisation solutions like this for some time, so we sometimes lose sight of the value they can deliver. Our appreciation was renewed, however, when we saw how customers at ACHEMA reacted to a demo of ICONICS MobileHMI solution, which provided full HMI/SCADA functionality running on a Windows Phone 7.

As data is generated by sensors across the plant floor, and pulled in from third-party sources such as partners, utility providers, the supply chain and public sector, MobileHMI visualises the data in a manner that is relevant to the scenario, as well as an individual’s role within the company.

With this insight, control engineers will have the ability to monitor key performance indicators and shut down an assembly line or piece of equipment at the first sign of failure, or to rally the troops and raise the plant’s operating efficiency back to acceptable levels. Indeed, MobileHMI has enabled one customer to sustain optimal levels of overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). Whenever the OEE KPI drops below 90% managers throughout the company are notified and recruited to help restore the rating. The awareness afforded by OEE has allowed this customer to catch early warning signs of failures, resulting in better maintenance and a cost savings of 15-20% on downtime.

In an industry where the difference between success or failure of a production line is a matter of seconds, degrees or millimeters, solutions like MobileHMI could make all the difference in transforming big data into actionable decisions for plant operations.

* IDC ‘Worldwide Big Data Technology and Services 2012-2015 Forecast’ Doc # 233485 (Mar 2012)

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