Four steps for moving to web-based applications on the shop floor

Four steps for moving to web-based applications on the shop floor

For many shop floors – e.g. tire-making or paper production – the environment hasn’t changed in decades. It’s often noisy, dirty, hot and humid. Bulky, stand-alone CRT monitors abound, accompanied by tired trackball mice.

No question, there’s considerable room for improvement here, which means a long journey to reach modern standards. It’s no cakewalk!

The payoff is that moving to web-based solutions opens up the future, and the present as well. It takes you to a place where you can reap the benefits of shop floor advancements to date, and those to come.

Following, a few steps you’ll need to take to get on your path, plus a few lessons learned along the way.

Before we start on the steps – why do it?

The real question is “why not?”

By transforming the relationship between man and machine, web-based applications open  up endless opportunity for greater productivity and innovation. In addition, they enable global teams, real-time collaboration and data sharing.

In my view, the technical difficulties have been over-used as an excuse not to move forward, particularly in North America. People – this is possible!

Let’s take a more detailed look at the upsides, and then discuss the steps to take.

Benefits of web apps on the shop floor

1.     Installs and updates are easy

Web-based applications virtually eliminate the issues with installs and updates.

Traditional plant (desktop) software requires installs and updates to be installed manually, machine-by-machine –  a roadblock and a headache. One plant I’m working at now is the size of about 20 football fields, with 450 machines. A new install at a plant like this steals the time of a team of key people, gradually making their way through the plant floor, USB drive in hand.

Some manufacturers go with Citrix VM. Even then, someone has to install it the first time, and there are still several host computers to download to the next time there’s an upgrade.

2.     Network brings freedom and efficiency

With the new capabilities of devices, particularly phones, whole new opportunities arise. Your operator’s phone can take pictures and/or scan barcodes, cutting down significantly on the back-and-forth trips that are such an inefficient aspect of traditional plant floors.

Operators can use any device with an online connection to access their application. This gives them the freedom of when, where, and how they access. Your operators can move around a large piece of equipment checking messages as they go – scanning barcodes, entering data, seeing that it’s within limits. The same applies to work instruction. Instead of the operator trekking back and forth to the app, the app comes to the operator. As it should!

3.     Raising the bar

Working with web-based applications instantly raises the bar – people are no longer resigned to old ugly interfaces. Operator expectations are immediately different after using a modern tool. Now they expect the advanced UX (User Experience) of modern apps, the apps they regularly use on their phones and tablets.

This is especially true for the phone experience. The web-based interface needs to be clean, simple, and scaled properly, with the right font size. No resorting to endless scroll bars!

This may seem like a problem. But actually, it’s an opportunity. Moving to web-based applications forces your organization to move into today’s standards – to deliver a modern interface that leads to greater efficiency and productivity. Operators are more engaged. I regularly see operators taking a lot of pleasure in working with an app that they see as leading-edge.

Four steps

No question, the move to web-based applications requires investments. Let’s break that down into components.

1.     Network infrastructure

The typical shop floor requires considerable updates to both power and internet access. In order to run a web-based application, you need to have a device on the line; this requires increased power plus internet access. If you are relying on cell data and you’re dealing with one or more older plants, without windows, you’ll need to invest to raise the signal power.

2.     Hardware

Hardware decisions need to be made early. Do the discovery work to decide how the new tool will be used, based on the requirements of the operations team. What size screen is needed? Does the application need to be accessed while in motion, using a mobile device? How long is the battery life? How easily is the device damaged? Does it have the scanning capability needed? How useable is the on-screen keyboard?

Luckily, we are at a point that the main challenge is picking one of many hardware solutions. A touch-screen terminal may be the right solution in some industries, with more stationary operators. Whereas for fork-lift drivers, a mounted tablet may work better. For a mobile operator who scans in raw materials for bill of material validations, a phone with a speciality case that allow for easy scanning may be optimal.

Security note: Once hardware decisions are made, there is still the extra step to lock down access to only approved websites and make sure settings aren’t tampered with.

3.     Database demands – how do you handle the huge uptick?

I’ve met several software vendors who think that IoT applications can be instantly morphed into a killer combo of IIoT and Industry 4.0.  The obstacle in this assumption seems not to appear on their radar – maybe it’s because IoT software typically focuses on the front end?

The Big Question is, how do you handle the back end database demands involved in pushing new information to the user?

Regardless of how you connect to your database – cloud-hosted or on site – demands explode exponentially with a web-based system. Your operator opens the screen; an inquiry goes to the database; that data is sent to many different places, including other MES, ERP systems, quality systems, other operators, and so on. That same data can be out of date 30 seconds later.

What’s an operator to do? Hitting refresh every five seconds not only isn’t going to make them happy in their work – that level of querying will crash the server.

For a manufacturing web application, you need a way for the screen to somehow subscribe to the latest news. Whenever there’s a relevant change in the data, the operator’s screen automatically refreshes, but otherwise, they know there’s no need to.

Case study: In a full MES implementation, we answered the refresh problem by developing a connector between GE Plant Applications and PTC ThingWorx (visualization) that leveraged the Plant Applications message bus. Changes could come from manual or automatic data collection methods, and might include new production, process order changes, product changes, records for tests taken on the line, raw material change, or scrap records created. As an example, if the MES is watching a signal from the machine saying whether it is running or not and that signal changes, logic is executed to record that a downtime has occurred. At the same time the message is published to the message bus. If the same thing is recorded manually on a screen, that same information is published to the bus.

The power of this approach is the screens themselves subscribe to what they need to know. An operator screen, a line scoreboard, and/or a rotating manager’s scoreboard may all be subscribed; each will instantly see that there is now a downtime. The addicted manager (believe me, it happens) who is enjoying dinner at home with the family now knows that the operator just went down for a maintenance issue, and can make the necessary phone calls – but maybe waiting until after dessert.

4.     Moving to a modern browser

Many North American manufacturers continue to use Internet Explorer (IE), a browser the rest of the world abandoned long ago. One reason for IE’s demise is that it doesn’t play well with the back end of apps. Plus, it doesn’t support Java script well.

To move to a browser-based system, your IT team will need to:

  • work out how to control updates to browsers
  • collaborate with the team to do proper testing
  • provide user support.

The payoff

Once you make the move:

  • You get up-to-date information at the fingertips of the people who need it.
  • You get improved interoperability – the ability to rapidly integrate enterprise systems, improving work-flow and other business processes.
  • You’ve earned the opportunity for a better UX – an operator-friendly, more consistent user interface that leads to decreased errors, easier training, and higher engagement.
  • You get exponentially easier installation and maintenance.
  • You have a network that is far more adaptable to an increased workload. Increasing processor capacity requires only the server hardware to be upgraded.

Free and fluid technology

Using web-based solutions makes being tied to an old-school terminal a thing of the past. Freeing up operators is one of the most noticeable benefits – allowing your team to do more with less.

For you as a manufacturing leader, the big win is enabling your plant to access all of the advantages of 21st century technology and innovation. Today and into the future.