A smart approach to service assurance for smart manufacturers

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Under growing pressure to innovate faster and operate more efficiently, businesses across all industries are undertaking a form of digital transformation. The manufacturing sector is no exception, with companies adopting innovative technologies such as AI and automation as a means of enhancing their capabilities and enabling them to deliver more products, faster than ever before. The complexities of the industry, coupled with ever-changing customer requirements and an ongoing urgent need to stay ahead of competitive threats, mean that manufacturers have become increasingly reliant on important, ‘just-in-time’ processes, in which items are created to meet demand, to avoid waste and excess inventory. 

According to a survey carried out by The Economist Intelligence Unit on behalf of Prudential, nearly two-thirds of manufacturing executives have implemented transformation strategies within their businesses, with the majority seeing tangible benefits as a result. What’s more, the most recent Annual Investment Monitor, carried out by manufacturer’s organisation EEF in conjunction with Santander, revealed that more than half of manufacturers intend to increase spending on automation technology over the next two years. Given the extent to which automation is currently relied upon, its use to underpin applications such as assembly lines, computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM), and ‘just in time’ delivery of inventory, for example, this additional investment should come as no real surprise.   

The manufacturing industry already relies heavily on IT services, of course; a reliance which is only set to grow as technology advances. Businesses have found that, through the deployment of various IT services, systems and applications, they are able to more easily integrate all steps of the manufacturing process, from design and engineering, to supply chain and operations. However, delays or disruptions to its production line or processes can put a company’s revenue, profitability, product quality, safety, and customer service at risk. Service assurance within a manufacturing organisation’s IT environment is therefore imperative.

The production line: a critical process

By way of illustration, consider the network between a large manufacturing plant and its multiple associated distribution sites, one of the most complex aspects of the manufacturing process. A disturbance at any point along the production line, such as in customer order management, for example, will hold up the order process, resulting in lost revenue, not to mention financial penalties to be paid to the contracted retailers. In addition to impacting production time and profitability, technology failures within a manufacturing business can also affect that manufacturer’s reputation: a long-term, unwanted outcome that can result in a critical issue. There is simply no room for error or performance degradation.

The reliance on automation to streamline industry operations is only going to increase further as the concept of Industry 4.0 is increasing realised, and, more areas of the manufacturing process become digitised. Machines, devices, sensors and even the factory workers themselves are now connected to the internet, making up the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and creating a new generation of ‘smart’ factories. However, as the number of connections within a factory grows, so too does the volume of data they generate and, subsequently, the number of risks which accompany them, threatening the stability of the technology itself.

The successful performance of a smart factory’s so-called ‘nervous system’, made up of machines communicating with other machines, automation technologies, connected IoT devices and sensors, is entirely dependent upon reliable, consistent connectivity. Information needs to be continuously and constantly available through bi-directional communication across wired and wireless networks, bringing together robots, sensors and human employees armed with mobile devices, printers and workstations. The impact of even a 15-minute delay in identifying and troubleshooting the root cause of an issue can cost a business dearly.

The solution to maintaining reliable and continuous connectivity in this transitioning industry lies in the proactive management of networks, which can be achieved by taking a smart approach to extracting the important information from all of the IP data that crosses the network, in real time. Prepared and organised at the point of collection, this smart data is ready and optimised for analytics with rich detail related to key performance indicators, errors, and metrics, providing manufacturers with the actionable intelligence they need to identify issues as quickly as possible. In addition, the insights it provides enables manufacturers to optimise their infrastructure in line with demand, driving wide-scale business benefits. 

Manufacture: visibility into the process

As new innovations continue to hit the factory floor, and technological advancements such as wireless machine-to-machine communications and the integration of connected IoT devices become more commonplace in the manufacturing space, businesses will need to have a solid assurance plan in place. 

Visibility, which has been a buzz word for the last couple of years but is every bit as important now, is key to assurance in the manufacturing industry. In addition to pin-pointing the root cause of an issue, the end-to-end visibility over the manufacturing process offered by the smart data described above enables manufacturers to have information to avert potential issues. An example being trend data on bandwidth utilisation Another valuable aspect to visibility has led many organisations to migrate to new digital transformation services much quicker, and more successfully due to ongoing monitoring and analysis before, during and after cloud, application and data centre transformations 

The digital transformation of manufacturing businesses, in common with those in other sectors, will be vital to their success in an increasingly competitive market. And it will be visibility that’s key to achieving this transformation and enabling manufacturers to take advantage of more streamlined, autonomous processes, and subsequently benefit from improved CAPEX and OPEX, and for the long term, greater business velocity. In short, the success of the smart factory will depend heavily on the smart approach taken toward service assurance. 

Eileen Haggerty, Senior Director Enterprise Business Operations at NETSCOUT 

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