Manufacturing is evolving alongside new and emerging technologies. “Traditional” hardware products have transitioned to smart products with integrated software and sensors, which bring greater value to both manufacturers and users. Machines are becoming smarter, and the industry is now relying on manufacturing-focused platforms to orchestrate the production flow. Despite these advances, there are numerous complexities and challenges on the way.
Manufacturing platforms are pools of digitally connected, smart products and machines that enable interaction between devices and collection of data. They are a central intelligence that enables internet of things (IoT) data orchestration, management of devices and the use of various services.
However, plant managers operate diverse types of machines and tools, leading to the presence of several different platforms for the management of their devices. Often, each platform is focused on specific tasks, and different vendors offer proprietary platforms. To manage all devices in the production flow and to facilitate the end-to-end integration, it’s necessary to connect the different niche platforms to each other.
Put simply, you need to create an ecosystem of platforms. This is challenging and requires serious effort to integrate the intelligence of various platforms. The resulting conglomerate of interconnected platforms is complex to manage and maintain because it requires ways to connect them and make them talk to each other.
To simplify this process, plant managers need to think differently. Decentralized networks are the next logical step. To avoid the management complexity of large systems, all of the intelligence needs to go back to the edge. The products don’t have to be managed through a central platform, but they can connect directly with other machines to request information about all the processes and steps they are involved in.
For example, manufacturing execution systems (MES) are currently the central managing tool, operating the machinery on the shop floor from the start to assembly and logistics. On the contrary, the implementation of decentralized systems and collaboration enables direct interconnection of different devices based on individual production plans embedded in every product itself, right at the start of the production life cycle. The to-be-built product and the machines will communicate directly with one another, pulling tasks according to the production schedule. To get to this point, manufacturers need new infrastructures and new technologies such as edge intelligence and blockchain that allow peer-to-peer communication and functionality.
Decentralized supplier management
How do decentralized systems look in practice? Let’s have a look at a concrete example: supply chain management. What if we tell you that a robot mixing juices can show how the supply chain will work in a decentralized way? A robot is set on a bar accompanied by a tablet with the cocktail menu. You select a juice cocktail, say cherry-banana, and order it on the tablet. The robot receives the order, moves a cup to the cherry juice jar, pours juice in the cup, then does the same with the banana juice. Finally, the robot mixes the juices and serves the cocktail.
In this showcase, the juice jars represent the suppliers, and the Juice Robot represents a logistics company. The modern supply chain is driven by customers’ requests, so all parties must work together to fulfil a customer’s order. When a new cocktail is ordered, a smart contract is created based on blockchain technology, and the various juice suppliers receive a request allowing them to start to fulfill this order. Then a subcontract is created for the logistics company. Every step is tracked in the smart contract, so when the customer receives the final cocktail, he or she can check the process and see whether everything was done as agreed. The blockchain technology enables the supplier to access all relevant data according to specific process steps. A duplicate of the process — called the “digital twin” — is securely documented on the blockchain.
Seems simple, but there is a sophisticated and intricate process behind it. This Juice Robot — created by DXC Technology in collaboration with four start-ups working with blockchain services (evan.network), open source platforms for data exchange (Streamr), robot programming (TruPhysics) and industrial robots themselves (Franka Emika) — combines traditional manufacturing with innovative technology, resulting in a more flexible and ad hoc manufacturing approach.
Blockchain as the backbone of decentralization
The tasks the robot is processing are built on top of a blockchain, which secures the storage of the manufacturing data and conforms with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The result? Greater trust and transparency in the supply chain. The blockchain technology helps create and strengthen trust among the stakeholders, since it enables secure task automation and safe storage of data as well as immutable contracts, preventing modification or even manipulation.
The potential use of the data generated via the automated processes is another added value. Automating tasks in the supply chain helps generate data that can be used for various purposes, such as predictive maintenance. Moreover, the data can be monetized by using open source platforms for data exchange. Bringing added value is a critical purpose of the supply chain. It’s not just about producing and delivering components, but about serving as an integrated collaborator in the manufacturing ecosystem.