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Making better use of data

Wth 60+ engineers and computer scientists working out of offices in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Costa Rica, Factora is a manufacturing consultancy that uses software technology to enable manufacturers to optimize their operations. Fundamentally the firm’s offering is all about capturing as much data from the process as possible and then exposing back to the customer the insight gained from that data so that the customer can effect change. I talked recently with Factora Chief Operating Officer and Chief Technology Officer Andrew Waycott. Highlights of the conversation follow.

Are CPG companies aware of how important it is that they get better at using data?

Waycott: Not entirely. It’s still common enough to walk into a plant where information is being recorded on clip boards. I always call that the operator’s “suggestion box,” because it’s not really a very accurate way of collecting information that can be meaningfully used in a big-picture way.

At companies where you do see better use of data taking place, what’s driving it?

Waycott: Three things. First, as new packaging equipment gets purchased, it tends to have the latest and greatest data feed functionality pre-baked into it. So as companies grow and they see the value of this kind of thing on their newest lines, they wish they had it everywhere. Second, the whole IoT / Smart Manufacturing / Industry 4.0 notion has started to gain traction so much more broadly these days. This increases the likelihood of CPG executives realizing there is real value in these things. And third, it’s getting really inexpensive to retrofit equipment with enough sensors and other bits of kit needed to actually start getting good info and insight out of your equipment, no matter how “mature” that equipment is. The barrier to entry for a single-site company where equipment may not be the latest and greatest is dropping quickly.

How would you say your business has changed lately?

Waycott: Our business has historically been more about what happened in the past–-top ten things for downtime for example—and less about how can we drive behavioral change on the plant floor. But over the last year or so our focus is changed more to what can we do now to make things better on the plant floor. It’s all about real-time visibility, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve partnered up with ThingWorx. It allows us to expose in a really nice visual way real-time info from a bunch of different sources all at once in a way that an operator can easily understand and benefit from. ThingWorx software brings you important real-time data but also mashups of data, like data from the PLC on the packaging line combined with info from the MES system coupled with quality data. They pull all that together and parse it in real time, showing it on a screen that tells the operators “you gotta do this this and this or you’re gonna have difficulties with schedule attainment.” Most often this info is on a screen mounted in the plant rather than something an operator gets by going to a machine’s HMI and clicking on it.

Are you hearing much about PackML among the CPG companies you encounter?

It’s possible that the problem PackML seeks to solve might get solved in a different way. The only real standard that’s out there that is totally embraced and accepted is OPC. As long as you have OPC, it’s not that hard to get to those minimal pieces of data, which PackML refers to as states.

What other trends do you see emerging as IoT and Big Data gain traction?

The premise of just hooking everything up and sending it all to the cloud and we’ll figure it out when it gets there, as ridiculous as it sounds, is getting closer to reality. In the Big Data world they talk about unstructured data. It’s this idea of just getting the data and then letting the computer systems figure it out. This is coming closer to becoming a reality. PackML, on the other hand, is an attempt to structure everything to make it easy for people to get to. Big Data in a way flips that on its head and says, “Just give me the unstructured data and we’ll figure it out.” I’m not advocating that. I’m still a big believer in standardizing, and one of my big things when I talk with multinationals is “You guys are always buying new equipment, why don’t you make a standard so that in your RFQs you say explicitly I expect you to provide me with the following standardized data block as part of your equipment?” Smaller firms buying packaging equipment don’t have quite as much muscle when it comes to this kind of thing, but with the larger multinationals it makes sense for them to ask for this.

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