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The dream of the smart factory

In early 2019, the first intelligent factory in the United Kingdom was created, using the recently launched 5G communications network to facilitate fast data transfer speeds. This could be a successful step forward for the industry, but George Walker, managing director of the industrial automation provider Novotek The United Kingdom and Ireland believe that it does not reflect the state of smart manufacturing for many UK companies. In fact, he argues that most of the UK industry is being excluded from the smart revolution.

Much has been made of the fourth industrial revolution that is supposedly upon us, marking the beginning of an era of intelligent networked devices, efficient automation and a large number of digital tools that will boost productivity and strengthen efficiency. These systems communicate directly with each other to monitor performance and control processes, effectively moving human workers towards more functions of product supervision and management in the factory.

The problem is that we are not seeing companies achieve these high objectives on a scale substantial enough to be considered a revolution. We are undoubtedly on the verge of revolution, and ideas and technologies exist, but it is not being implemented effectively. If we look at the second industrial revolution, which saw the electrification of the factories, the revolution really began when companies brought electricity to their plants. Once there, innovations can be made in electrical equipment and machinery.

In the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0, data is the new electricity. Before we can really begin to revolutionize the industry, more companies need to have the means to capture, store and analyze their data from industrial processes and operations. Unfortunately, many companies are being reduced in price due to the current business model of historian software, when data is collected from various devices in a SCADA network and recorded in a database.

Historian software is essential to achieve the benefits of Industry 4.0, as it provides a robust and reliable platform to aggregate and analyze data. Each data stream, such as the input of a specific SCADA system or the rotation characteristics of a connected motor, is stored as a label in the software. The data remains there until an engineer or plant manager analyzes it for analysis, at which time the information becomes valuable because it provides information. Until this, they are only numbers.

Currently, the model is that companies pay more than the odds for historian software because they are required to buy an "X" amount of tags, or data streams, regardless of whether they are actively analyzed or even used.

And because the industrial operations are so large, a company will never know how many labels it needs before it begins to be digitized. The result is that medium and large companies are paying high costs for 10,000 labels, when they may only need and use 400. Meanwhile, smaller companies have reduced prices.

It is fair to say that this model does not lead to an industrial revolution. That is why Novotek has recently partnered with GE Digital to bring a new historical software model to UK companies: the GE Digital historian Together, we are bringing a "pay-per-use" approach to software: a subscription-based model, where the first 200 tags can be analyzed, viewed and converted into reports for free. Instead of paying for unused labels, costs are associated with the analysis and the value you get from the data.

GE Digital Historian has the capacity of up to 200,000 labels, which makes it a scalable solution for businesses, from small businesses to global corporations. Each additional label required beyond the initial 200 is then added to a nominal load. This makes it an affordable and scalable software platform, which is highly effective and magnitudes more profitable than competitors.

Smart factories will certainly be beneficial for manufacturers, later on the line. But, without first having a means of collecting and analyzing data effectively, they are currently little more than an impossible dream. Before we can move on to smarter manufacturing, we must first be smarter about the data. With a new historian software model, we can begin this journey.

The author is George Walker, managing director of industrial automation provider Novotek United Kingdom and Ireland.