Disrupting Cost of IIoT Projects

Disrupting Cost of IIoT Projects

Where is there room for startup companies who can disrupt industrial technology?

I was recently pondering this problem—and indeed, I consider it a problem.

Inductive Automation did it years ago partly with a state-of-the-art technology, but mostly it was by building a company that could be profitable with a disruptive pricing model.

ThingWorx did some cool things. But it exited via acquisition by PTC, which combined it with Kepware into a new division. I’m not sure, yet, the extent of disruption that has caused.

Then I had an introduction to two CEOs of very interesting start ups. Check out yesterday’s thoughts on a new take of AI, voice applications, and maintenance.

This post is about UrsaLeo freshly off a chat with CEO John Burton. It’s a story about software, science, and Raspberry Pi.

The story begins with a Google cloud based platform which is enterprise ready (can support 500K messages a second on a mid-range server). It’s also highly secure—separate servers for user login and data which communicate via a secure certificate, so a hacker can’t get into the data side with a user name and login.

Burton told me, “Today we take in sensor data (mostly environmental), store it, display on dashboards, and make it available for download. We also have a robust events / alerts engine almost ready for rollout that will generate email, text, Slack messages and also can be used to control equipment (turn things on/off etc.). Our provisioning process includes create an account on our website, enter a serial number (type or scan), and boot the device. Certificates are installed automatically and a virtual server spun listening for data from the device.”

In the area of object recognition, they are working with a new class of AI chips (Google, NVIDIA) making it possible to run machine learning algorithms at the edge. Combine with a $30 camera and a Raspberry Pi and you have a 1-2 frames / second object recognition system that can be trained to recognize 20-30 separate objects. “We’re using this to look at nuts welded to a steel plate for a customer in the UK (are the nuts the right size, in right locations?). This is their biggest source of customer returns.”

When you combine 3 or more cameras doing object recognition you can triangulate to do 3D positioning with reasonable accuracy. This is a great edge application.

Not to be ignored is another current digital trend—Digital Twinning. For UrsaLeo, this means 3D models combined with real time data. “We have a unique way of creating the 3D models utilizing technology one of the founders developed. You can click and drag objects together while wearing a VR headset. The approach being used everywhere else is to utilize gaming technology (Unreal engine or Unity engine) which is very expensive. You need a game developer to drive them as well. So add the 3D positioning with a digital twin and we can start to show goods moving through a facility in real time.”

An Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) project can easily run into the millions of dollars. UrsaLeo is developing its technology with a combination of low cost single board computers, cameras, and AI devices combined with inexpensive digital twinning technology. This means a mid-sized manufacturer can get a sophisticated IIoT system for maybe $30K (and then ongoing cloud charges).

“We also think it’s important to make the system as open as possible so it can be connected to any hardware and also send it’s data to other applications. We’ve defined API’s for the sensors and on the cloud side we have a REST API, also a web hook, and a web streaming API. We think this approach is going to give the big monolithic players a tough time and also open up many new customers.”

There is a lot here to digest. I can think of a large number of my contacts in the industry who would be very interested in this. Stay tuned, I’m sure.

AI for Troubleshooting Technology

AI for Troubleshooting Technology

I interviewed an interesting CEO of a Swedish start up called Mavenoid. Shahan Lilja is also a co-founder of this company leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the form of Statistical Machine Learning that tackles maintenance from an entirely different perspective.

(Note: I’m making up for going on vacation rather than going to Hannover by interviewing people I would have seen.)

Every company I’ve talked with for the past many years focuses on predictive or preventive maintenance.

But what happens when things break? A technician still must be sent to the scene in order to trouble shoot the problem. Perhaps the trouble is with a consumer product. The customer calls the company for help troubleshooting. The founders of Mavenoid saw this as an ideal opportunity for a Machine Learning application combined with perhaps a chat bot on the order of Siri or Alexa.

Lilja told me Mavenoid is the world’s leading platform for troubleshooting technical products, from dishwashers and robotic lawn mowers to trucks and cranes. It helps companies organize all of their troubleshooting knowledge, and make it come alive through an intelligent virtual agent. This virtual agent works much like a doctor for technical systems, narrowing down the possible solutions to the problem by asking diagnostic questions, and improves with each interaction. Mavenoid has some of the worlds largest companies as clients, e.g. 7 of the 20 largest manufacturing companies in the Nordics, and has quickly established itself as the future of technical support.

Finally, someone who goes beyond “buzz words” in order to define a strong use case for AI.

Mavenoid technology can be (and in fact is already) embedded within companies’ customer support services. I think this is something you all should definitely check out.

Robots and AI Spell Change Not Replacement for Workers

Robots and AI Spell Change Not Replacement for Workers

Here, finally, is someone who writes sensibly about automation. Dystopian writers about a robot apocalypse get lots of clicks and attention, but reality will be far different.

Elliot Dinkin, president and CEO of Cowden Associates: What automation appears to have in store for the job market is not massive downsizing, but changes in job description and reallocation of some repetitive chores.

I don’t know how I got on the mailing list of this PR firm, but the following article is worth it.

In late 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute released a report estimating that the relentless march of automation could eliminate up to 73 million jobs in the U.S. by 2030. “Automation is certainly a factor in the future of the workforce,” says Elliot Dinkin, a nationally known expert in actuarial, compensation, and employee benefits issues. “There are indications, however that its effect on downsizing may be less than what has been predicted. The largest corporate layoffs of this century to date, for example, seem primarily to have been caused not by advanced technology, but by market changes, mergers, and plain old bad business decisions.”

This assessment was echoed by participants in a recent conference on the future of the worker held at the Stanford School of Business. In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau listed 250 separate jobs; of these, the conference noted, only one, that being elevator operator, has been completely eliminated. (And some of the elevator operator’s tasks, like greeting visitors and guiding them to the right office, have been redistributed to receptionists and security guards.) Conferees also pointed out that automation has its limits. Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of Tesla Motors, said, “Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”

One reason automation and computerization may loom so large in near-future predictions, industry experts suggest, is the spectacular increase in availability, and decrease in cost, of computer power. Given the capabilities of even an average smartphone, it is easy to forget that the underlying procedures—the algorithms that drive functions like big data and machine learning—have not changed significantly in more than 40 years.

It is also, Dinkin notes, easy to forget that under the right circumstances, automation facilitates business growth and thus stimulates employment rather than threatening it. The Ford Motor Company introduced the auto assembly line in 1913, reducing assembly time from 12 hours per car to about one and one-half hours—and enabling an enormous upsurge in production.5 Since then, the auto industry has continued to embrace automation, along with job-changing concepts like lean manufacturing. It has also continued to hire people; between 2011 and 2017, auto making and auto supplies employment increased by almost 50%, adding nearly 130,000 jobs in the U.S.

Another too often overlooked aspect of the future labor market, says Dinkin, is worker availability. Hal Varian, chief economist at Google, points out that while most popular discussions of technology center around replacing people with machines, current demographic trends point to a coming substantial drop in the supply of labor. According to Varian, the demographic effect on the labor market is 53% larger than the automation effect—meaning that when both are considered, both employment and real wages are more likely to increase than decrease.

“In the future as in the past,” says Dinkin, “workforce reductions will always be a possibility. In the future as in the past, automation will play a role in these decisions—but only as one of a number of factors, all of which need to be taken into account. What matters is to understand the situation, and to handle it in a manner fair to all parties. In our own business practice, we urge both labor representatives and corporate management to approach workforce decisions with as little passion and as much analysis as possible.”

Cowden Associates, Inc., headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA, was created in 2001 by the merger of Halliwell and Associates and MMC&P Spectrum Benefits, which was founded by Jere Cowden in 1986. Currently led by President & CEO Elliot Dinkin, Cowden Associates specializes in helping corporate clients find the best solutions, both for the enterprise and for its employees, with regard to compensation, healthcare benefits, retirement and pension issues, and Taft-Hartley fund consulting. Winning Workplaces and The Wall Street Journal have recognized Cowden Associates as a “Top Small Workplace,” a lifetime designation awarded to executives for their ability to build and lead savvy organizations. For more information, visit www.cowdenassociates.com

McCarthy, Niall, “Automation Could Eliminate 73 Million U.S. Jobs By 2030,” Forbes, November 30, 2017.
Whiteman, Doug, “The Biggest Corporate Layoffs of the Century (So Far),” Moneywise, February 11, 2019.
Snyder, Bill, “Our Misplaced Fear of Job-Stealing Robots,” Stanford Business Insights, March 7, 2019.
Kosko, Bart, “What Do You Think About Machines That Think?,” Edge Foundation, 2019.
Boisset, Fabrice, “The History of Industrial Automation in Manufacturing,” kingstar.com, May 9, 2018.
“State of the U.S. Automotive Industry,” American Automotive Policy Council, August 2018.
“Productivity, Technology, and Demographics,” International Monetary Fund IMF Blog, May 5, 2017.

Collaboration Drives Next Generation Bioprocessing Automation

Collaboration Drives Next Generation Bioprocessing Automation

Rockwell Automation’s strategy right now seems to be developing partnerships for special use cases. This announcement concerns collaborating with GE Healthcare for bioprocessing automation.

At a glance, GE Healthcare and Rockwell Automation can help companies:

  • Gain greater efficiency with FlexFactory single-use equipment integrated with Figurate bioprocess automation that improves reproducibility, repeatability and compliance.
  • Digitize batch files and processes to reduce review times by weeks and even achieve real-time reviews.
  • Deliver instructions to workers with augmented reality to improve batch execution, operations, equipment setup and training.
  • Collaboration will help drug manufacturers improve efficiencies, get to market faster and deliver personalized medicines with innovative solutions.
  • Joint work is pivotal step in transforming biopharmaceutical manufacturing to meet the needs of the biopharma 4.0 era

GE Healthcare and Rockwell Automation are combining their automation, IT, and single-use solution expertise to build bioprocessing operations for the digital age. GE Healthcare has also joined the Rockwell Automation PartnerNetwork Program as an OEM Partner to help drive a best-in-class distributed control system offering.

Kevin Seaver, executive general manager, Bioprocess Automation and Digital, GE Healthcare, said: “As GE Healthcare and the healthcare ecosystem move toward precision health, flexible and scalable solutions are critical for companies to efficiently manufacture smaller batches of tailored medicines. Our collaboration with Rockwell Automation is an integral part of our strategy to confirm we deliver innovative solutions that meet the needs of the biopharma 4.0 era.”

Fran Wlodarczyk, senior vice president, Architecture and Software, Rockwell Automation said: “Our collaboration with GE Healthcare will help make bioprocessing operations more agile. The facility of the future reimagines what’s possible in production of biopharmaceuticals. It uses connectivity, information, and modular equipment to create smaller-scale, more efficient operations. As GE Healthcare becomes a member of our PartnerNetwork program, our joint work will help GE Healthcare bring the Connected Enterprise to life, so they can meet demands for more targeted drugs and get products to market faster.”

Automation improves operational efficiency with reduced production risk and streamlines workflows resulting in faster times to market. This collaboration leverages the combined expertise in single-use bioprocessing with deep automation and IT knowledge to turn data insights into productive outcomes.

Revitalizing Manufacturing in Detroit

Revitalizing Manufacturing in Detroit

There are few things I find as exciting as exploring revitalizing manufacturing or production facility. When people and technology come together to make useful products in a clean and safe manner is art to me.

Therefore, I was happy that my Siemens contacts talked me into driving up to Detroit earlier than I planned to tour the Ford Livonia Transmission plant on March 19. I planned to come up for the noon tour at FlexNGate, but the changed plans worked wonderfully.

Ford Powertrain was a customer of mine in the 80s when I worked for a company that designed and built automated machines and then through the 90s when I was a sales engineer solving problems and selling automation and electrical equipment. So, I witnessed the beginnings of the evolution of these manufacturing plants from dark, dirty, smelly, oily, dangerous, loud environments to today’s clean, efficient, professional facilities.

Ford Livonia Transmission Plant

Mike Bastian, Advanced Engineering Manager Ford Powertrain, explained Ford’s journey from 2000 to present to increase use of digital in manufacturing—The Digital Manufacturing Strategy. He told me that since beginning the present system journey in 2008, they were doing IIoT before there was an IIoT.

Ford Livonia Tranmissions

Bob Groden, plant manager, described the journey that began with removing several obsolete lines, gutting the facility, painting and cleaning, and preparing for additional transmission assembly lines. This plant is huge. And he walks it three times a day greeting people and asking how things are going. As he told me, “I get my steps in.”

The three themes include people working together, safety, and quality. An important note: The plant continuously added people over the rebuild time all the while increasing automation. three themes; added people continuously all the while automating the plant. Groden and UAW Local President Keith Miller talk to every new employee class and then follow up with each later on the line.

Jon Guske, manufacturing engineering manager-feasibility, described a system the team built beyond the computer-aided engineering system—discrete event throughput simulation. It can connect to VR to help OEMs understand the process and product before beginning machine design. It even models chip removal in machining processes to improve manufacturing process.

  • Following are pieces of the Digital Manufacturing Strategy as bullet points:
  • Standard Hardware Architecture
  • IP65–removed all the large enclosures in the plant (aside, using Siemens because it could do it; one company went to management and flat out told them that Bastian was wrong, management said don’t ever say he’s wrong; another company gets to the spec via a work-around he didn’t like)
  • Common PLC/CNC
  • Common configuration and programming software
  • Integrated safety
  • Virtual commissioning
  • Obsolescence management (upgrade path)

Network Standard

Ethernet, specifically Profinet—called Control Production Network

  • Software Standard—Ford Automation Software Template
  • Standard function blocks
  • Standard HMI Screens
  • Standard linkages
  • OEMs are trained and must adhere
  • Lean Manufacturing Assistant
  • Process Configuration Management System
  • Condition Monitoring
  • Part Tracking System, extensive use of RFID

I had an opportunity during the tour to talk with Scott King, IT Lead, Advanced Manufacturing Powertrain, Solutions Development. I asked about the mythic IT/OT split and convergence. He basically said, “What split?” He sits with engineering advanced manufacturing lead and they discuss projects and problems daily. Plant projects teams include these roles—IT Solutions, Engineering, Product Lead, Operations. They’ve been working together for six years.


FlexNGate is a Tier One supplier of stamped metal and injection molded plastic parts. The company has $6.5 B sales, 70 plants, and presence in many countries. It just built a 454,000 sq. ft. plant in burned-out Detroit neighborhood manufacturing parts for Ford Ranger. It is the largest investment in the city of Detroit in 20 years.

There were a couple of determining factors in the plant location. Ford wanted supplier to be local. The city wanted plants to locate in distressed areas that would also hire locally to provide jobs and hope to the area. They pledged 250 jobs, have 350 full time and 250 temporary and the plant is just a year old and still stabilizing processes after the significant production ramp up.

They run the new hires through training from such things as showing up on time every day, following work instructions, safety, and quality.

Two impressive facilities in one day. That’s a pretty good day.

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