If telephones and electric grids can be "smart," then it makes sense that manufacturing and factories can be "brilliant." GE defines "brilliant factories" as those that have a "digital thread" woven through them to connect design to materials to manufacturing processes to labor to factories and to suppliers. GE recently announced the debut of its cloud-based Brilliant Manufacturing Software (BMS) suite, a platform that is currently being field-tested at some of the company's global factory locations.
At its heart, the software applies real-time analytics to help improve decision-making across all aspects of the manufacturing chain to optimize processes and materials, cut costs and waste involved in rework, improve designs, minimize unscheduled asset downtime, and bring new products to market faster.
The suite has four modules:
- An OEE performance analyzer module that turns machine data into efficiency metrics
- A production execution supervisor to digitize orders, process steps, instructions, and documentation with information from ERP and product lifecycle management systems
- A production quality analyzer to identify quality data boundaries and catch non-conforming events before they occur
- A product genealogy manager that automatically builds records of all personnel, equipment, raw materials, sub-assemblies, and tools used to produce finished goods.
The suite is the crowning achievement of recent consolidation within GE's industrial software divisions. The former Intelligent Platforms division was merged with the company's Software Center of Excellence to form what's now being called "GE Digital." Rich Carpenter, chief technology architect for GE Digital, told Design News that the reorganization, as well as the launch of the BMS, is an effort to "close the digital thread."
"We're trying to connect what were previously island systems around production operations management into design, manufacturing, and service," said Carpenter. "One of the goals of the BMS is to identify manufacturing issues anywhere in the chain and be able to loop them back to the design process to identify and correct any problems."
While there are already many so-called digital manufacturing and manufacturing intelligence systems filling the market, many operate at the individual plant level, lack scalability, and have long implementation times. With the BMS, the goal is to connect machines within hours, and within a few days enable facilities to use analytics to pinpoint where production losses are originating, whether it's the design, the materials or procurement, machine operations, labor, or the supply chain.
"GE has 400 global manufacturing facilities," Carpenter told Design News. "We've targeted a subset of those plants to run the BMS, so we can look at real-time dashboards in those plants and reach a consistent level of performance and provide tools to optimize output. We've also got outside customers using it, and we're getting a lot of feedback on the best way to deliver these capabilities in the cloud. For the basic production OEE analyzer, for example, there are about 12 pieces of data that are brought to the cloud, analyzed, and delivered back to the customer in the form of actionable intelligence."
So far, according to GE, its own facilities and outside customers have been able to significantly improve yield by identifying lost or wasted time, reduce downtime by between 10 and 30%, and identify inefficiencies in every step of the manufacturing process.
What makes analysis of the end-to-end manufacturing process possible, said Carpenter, is the emerging Internet of Things (IOT) infrastructure. "The fact that we can gather this data quickly thanks to networks and sensors, then analyze it and deliver it in the form of intelligence, makes it much more efficient than would have been possible even five years ago," he said.
Companies need not have state-of-the-art technology and networks to take advantage of the suite, however.
"We've categorized equipment into three areas: installed and ready for connection on an existing network, capable of being connected but missing the communications network, and equipment that's so old it has no connectivity capabilities. In the latter case, we've developed ways to hardwire into the equipment and get some of the signals we need -- with a cellular connection, for example -- then bring it all back into the data collector and analyzer so it can yield good results."
GE plans to take BMS out of the pilot stage and launch it for wide release by the end of this year. Manufacturing customers will be able to choose one or more modules of the suite or the entire platform. The company also has established alliances with PTC to bring the latter's ThingWorx IIoT application into its software portfolio, as well as struck an accord with Cisco to develop best practices for deploying the BMS in the latter's IT environment.
Tracey Schelmetic graduated from Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. and began her long career as a technology and science writer and editor at Appleton & Lange, the now-defunct medical publishing arm of Simon & Schuster. Later, as the editorial director of telecom trade journal Customer Interaction Solutions (today Customer magazine) she became a well-recognized voice in the contact center industry. Today, she is a freelance writer specializing in manufacturing and technology, telecommunications, and enterprise software.
[image via GE]
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