Table of Contents
Chapter One: Introduction
In the next year, you’re going to hear a lot about platforms. And not just because this is an election year.
Several leading research firms recently named Connected Worker Platforms manufacturing’s most significant development of the new decade.
If you’ve spent any time looking for solutions, then you know that Connected Worker Platforms are joining a crowded field. A quick google search turns up all of these different kinds of platforms:
- IIoT Platforms
- Manufacturing Application Platforms
- Workforce Productivity Platforms
- Smart Manufacturing Platforms
- Manufacturing Operations Management Platforms
- AI and Big Data Analytics Platforms
Do you have your buzzword bingo card out yet?
Manufacturing platforms are an essential tool in the modern factory, but it can be hard to know where to start. It can be harder to know which is right for you.
In this guide, we’ll share everything you need to know about platforms in manufacturing. We’ll go over the following areas to make your research and buying decision as simple as possible:
- Explain platforms as a concept and a tool
- Introduce you to the various types of platforms
- Give you the information you need to decide which platform is right for you
At the end, you’ll have a set of tools and concepts for making the most informed decision.
Chapter Two: Key Definitions
Let’s start by establishing some key definitions.
First things first: What is a platform?
What is a Platform?
A platform is a set of hardware and software tools for connecting industrial processes and workers.
This is about as general as you can get with a definition before the term loses its descriptive power.
That’s because platforms can do many things in manufacturing.
For one, they connect front-end and back-end systems. This allows information to flow more freely between front-line processes and back-end storage and compute resources.
Platforms also create novel connections between industrial workers, their workflows, and full manufacturing systems. As a result, they enable significantly more robust data collection.
Finally, they enable engineers to create applications for their unique processes. Whether digital SOPs, machine monitoring dashboards, process visibility, or tool tracking, applications are smart pieces of software designed by the people who will use them.
When applied to manufacturing solutions, “platform” tends to mean two things:
- A tool for connecting and controlling industrial systems.
- A means of developing manufacturing applications.
What is an application?
Let’s take a step back and define “application.”
Applications are simply pieces of software that run on a platform.
They’re very similar to the way you use smartphone applications to hail a cab, listen to music, or track your exercise. Instead of running on your phone, they run on an industrial platform. And instead of adding convenience to your everyday life, industrial applications improve safety, efficiency, and a host of other metrics.
Applications differ from software-as-a-service software solutions in that they focus on a single challenge or process. So rather than running many individual software solutions from equally as many vendors, platforms give manufacturers a chance to simplify.
The modern shop floor is one running many applications on a single platform.
Some commentators have called this an “application ecosystem.” With multiple applications working symbiotically and increasing the efficacy of others, the effect is very much like that of a harmonious, balanced ecosystem.
The value of platforms for application development lies in speed and flexibility. Applications designed with a platform can be deployed on a different timescale than custom-built software. Applications can be built in hours, not months, and updated in minutes, not weeks.
Chapter Three: What are the Different Kinds of Platforms?
Here’s where the subtle differences in definition start to matter. While many companies can rightly claim to use the term “platform” not all of them use it in the same way.
It’s important to note that there’s often little or no difference between the different kinds of platforms. Conversely, there can be wild variations in functionality between platforms with the same label.
Here’s a quick survey of the different types of manufacturing platforms you’ll encounter.
This is the broadest category. IIoT Platforms get their name from their ability to link manufacturing processes across the Industrial Internet of Things.
IIoT Platforms create new levels of visibility by connecting sensors, machines, and other smart devices into new configurations.
In this category, you’ll find examples of both broad types of platforms (messaging and connectivity, and application).
Connected Worker Platform
Almost all human error in manufacturing is avoidable. Human error is the result of poor system design.
Connected worker platforms attempt to improve human performance by enhancing workers’ access to information, and by reducing their cognitive load.
As platforms improve worker accuracy and safety, they collect data on worker performance. This new visibility is critical for developing the most efficient systems possible.
In some cases, Connected Worker Platforms are simply sophisticated systems for communicating with front line workers.
In other cases, they’re more complete means for transforming industrial workflows so that they work for and with humans. Often they also include application development capabilities.
The key thing is that they’re built with workers in mind.
Manufacturing Application Platform
Manufacturing Application Platforms emphasize application development.
That said, Manufacturing Applications Platforms have just as much potential to connect workers and processes as their siblings in other categories.
For example, applications are frequently designed with workers in mind. And applications might be configured precisely to encourage a more complete view of processes that involve humans and machines.
The important thing to know about platforms in this category is that they radically simplify the application development process. In many cases, they enable you to deploy applications out of the box. Or to configure templates to match your unique products and processes.
Manufacturing Operations Management Platform
This is a broad category that, in some ways, doesn’t quite belong with the others.
Manufacturing operations management platforms encompass a wide variety of software solutions and project management tools, all made to simplify the manufacturing process from end-to-end.
At times they come as holistic suites, resembling traditional MES solutions. Other versions have more targeted features.
They make their claim to the “platform” category by bundling traditionally disparate functions like quality, compliance, production planning, analytics, and process execution.
So what does this variation within and across categories tell us about platforms?
It tells us:
- That there’s a need for intuitive, flexible solutions that rise to the complexity of modern manufacturing
- That platforms are increasingly the solution of choice to fulfill this need
- The marketplace isn’t going to get any easier to interpret any time soon
Chapter Four: How to Pick the Right Platform for You
With all of these different platforms competing for your business, it can be difficult to know which will work best for your purposes.
That’s why we advocate asking a series of question about your current capacities and your future needs.
This exercise is intended to help you set priorities and identify the features that matter most to you.
1. What are your goals?
A basic question, sure. But your can’t really assess the pros and cons of each platform unless you can ask precisely how a platform will help you reach your goals?
So what metric would you like to improve? What process would you like to digitize? Where would it help to have more data? Are there certain lines with more errors than others?
It doesn’t really matter how you answer—that’s going to be a reflection of your operations and needs.
It does matter that you do.
2. What data will make the difference?
What do you want to know? Whether it’s operator efficiency or machine availability, chances are there’s one (or many!) areas where you could use better data.
Identifying which data matter—and why—will make it significantly easier to narrow your platform search.
3. Who will use it?
Do you need a tool that supports your frontline workforce? What about management? Do you need something for engineers and operators? What about executives?
Technologies aren’t deployed in a vacuum. It takes people to create value. Knowing who’s going to create value for you is key.
4. How long will it take to deploy?
Your timeline is up to you. But make sure that your vendor can meet it—not the other way around.
5. How easy is it to update?
Will you need to chase down IT every time you want to update an application? Will the platform create more tickets than it closes?
The resources you can dedicate to a platform depend on your staffing and workloads.
6. How soon until you’ll need to add another solution? Will you end up with a factory filled with platforms?
This is where breadth of capability starts to matter. Many platforms are closer to single solutions than full platforms. Which means that they might not be extensible enough to address each of your needs and improvements.
Be sure to ask if the platform will fit your needs next year, in 5 years, and 10.
7. Will it integrate with your existing systems?
As extensible as some platforms are, it’s unlikely one platform will fulfill every software and hardware need you have.
So be sure to identify any integrations you’ll need (ERP, MES, PLC, etc.), and make sure that the platforms you consider will play nice.
Chapter Five: Platforms in Action: Use Cases and Case Studies
At this point, it makes sense to illustrate what platforms do by giving examples of how they’re used in real manufacturing operations.
In this section, we’ll review three ways manufacturers use Tulip. Each case study was selected because it highlights a particular facet of platform functionality.
Process Visibility at a World-Class Boat Manufacturer
At a leading manufacturer of high-end motorboats based in Florida, a team made the decision to use a manufacturing platform because they lacked the data necessary to drive continuous improvement. While the process improvement team regularly conducted time studies, the variety of parts, processes, and people made it impossible to collect data efficiently and comprehensively. According to one of the process engineers, “The manual collection of information really wasn’t providing enough data for us to make data-driven decisions.”
As a result, the team sought a platform to help automate data collection.
Using Tulip, a senior process engineer built applications to track which operator did what on the upholstery line, and when. The application automatically-collected step and cycle-time, and gave the team complete visibility into a 400 operator factory.
Now, the platform automatically collects and displays data on easy-to-read dashboards, making it easier to identify opportunities for process improvements.
Further, the manufacturer uses the data they collect on operator performance to hone training programs.
All in all, the company used a platform to achieve a 30% reduction in cycle time and a 7% increase in production. Together, that’s over $500,000 in projected annual savings.
For the company, a platform was a means of gathering the data that mattered to them while connecting workers to their workflows.
Connected Workforce at Staymobile
Many organizations struggle to communicate with a distributed workforce. The scattering of workers across locations and geographies can result in inconsistent procedures, incomplete data, and unmanageable amounts of paper.
This was the situation Staymobile found themselves in when they began searching for a platform solution.
Staymobile is a national, INC 500 provider of computer, Chromebook, and mobile device repair and service solutions.
As a national organization with a geographically distributed workforce, Staymobile struggled to standardize work across locations. Paper-based work instructions were difficult to follow, and made it difficult for engineers to verify technician compliance. Often, multiple versions of the same work instruction were in use at different locations, leading to inconsistently executed procedures and avoidable mistakes. Further, paper-based processes made it impossible to collect data that gave them visibility into their operations on a national level.
Using Tulip, Staymobile built digital work instruction applications that engineers could adapt to the unique needs of every location. At the same time, each of these applications automatically collected process data, enabling Staymobile to stay agile and make adjustments as necessary.
“The flexibility and ease of use of work instructions have been a game changer for us,” began Rob Lennox, EVP of Staymobile.
Each application is integrated with Staymobile’s ERP, making inventory tracking and processing planning simple. Because these applications are delivered through the cloud, they let Staymobile centralize their data collection. “The Tulip apps are designed for collecting this data. It’s almost completely geared toward what engineers need from an output perspective for actionable KPIs.”
Because they chose a flexible platform over a single-use case solution, Staymobile is building new applications to drive ongoing initiatives.
“We’ve been using Tulip for five months now, and we’re on a daily basis finding ways to improve, enhance, and deploy new things into our organization,” said Lennox.
The organization is already planning Audit applications to replace a paper book, as well as custom applications configured for specific site visits.
Connected Factory with Taza
Most manufacturing processes are a tightly choreographed collaboration between humans and machines.
Without good data, it can be hard to determine which are responsible for inefficiencies. This is especially true when industrial machines are decades old and can’t connect to the internet. When scaling up, it can be unclear whether there’s unused capacity, or whether it’s necessary to buy new machines.
This was the challenge facing Taza Chocolate, a bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturer based in Somerville, Massachusetts, when they received a large order from a national wholesaler.
Taza opted for a platform approach. First, Taza installed IIoT sensors on their analog machines. They then connected these sensors to Tulip applications, enabling them to measure RPM, cycle time, engine speed, temperature, and humidity throughout their operations. This data was used to visualize machine uptime and downtime in real time, and to identify the root cause of bottlenecks.
As a result, Taza was able to increase the number of pieces they produced per shift by 15%, while increasing uptime. All the better, they were able to meet rising demand for their product without purchasing new machinery.
Chapter Six: Conclusions
When leading market research firms declare a technology a trend, it’s only natural that vendors will rush in and align themselves with the Next Big Thing. It’s hard to stand out in a crowded field.
The problem is that this kind of positioning makes it significantly harder for manufacturers to determine which solutions are right for them.
This guide is our attempt at helping you select a platform that will make a difference for your operations.
If you think that’s Tulip, get in touch. We’re here to help.
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