As GE Digital unveils the latest enhancements to its digital manufacturing solutions, Connected Technology Solutions spoke to Richard Kenedi, GM manufacturing – digital plant, about how industrial companies are progressing on the digital transformation journey and the impact that COVID-19 is having on the manufacturing sector.

 What are you hearing from your customers about how the digital transformation that manufacturing companies are undertaking is helping them with needed actions related to the pandemic?

There is some commonality in terms of what we are seeing and the feedback we are getting from manufacturing companies. Terms such as agility, flexibility, efficiency, and the ability to be really optimised from a competitive perspective come to mind. In response to the pandemic, it is important that manufacturers have the ability to react and have remote capabilities, visibility, and flexibility to change their lines as needed. Customers that are further advanced in terms of their utilisation and acceptance of digital transformation seem to be doing better.

Part of the reason I am at GE Digital is because I believe that, although it has been a long journey, that journey is accelerating. There are both technological factors, as well as business factors through globalisation, that are helping that acceleration. The market is making these companies operate more effectively across agility, flexibility, and optimisation. There is definitely traction there, and it’s going to continue to grow.

In your view are manufacturers moving fast enough to obtain the advantages a digital enterprise can offer. If not, what are the roadblocks?

It is a mix. As with most things, different customers move at different speeds: different leadership have different mindsets, and different companies have different blockers that might prevent them from moving as fast as they would like to. One result of the pandemic will be an acceleration in the digital transformation journey.

When I look at industry, I always look for turns. These turns can be technology, they can be regulatory, or they can be turns that are completely unforeseen, such as the pandemic. I see companies assessing their digitisation efforts, looking at supply chain, looking at their ability to have remote operations, to have visibility, to have the ability to quickly turn process activity, and how they are utilising their assets. We saw through the beginning of the pandemic, business as usual. Our customers that had committed to do things wanted to see things through. They worked with us to figure out how to do that without necessarily having to go to the plant to complete some of those exercises.

Financial reality is now kicking in at a macroeconomic level. What is going to happen? How is manufacturing going to continue? There might be a little bit of a hesitation in certain circumstances to say, ‘How much do we want to allocate?’ but I think that is quickly going to resolve itself. We are going to see, at the very top of the stack, digital transformation continues to be a big part of their investment moving forward. They want to make sure that they are in a very good position in the new normal relative to flexibility, agility, visibility and optimisation in terms of what they are trying to accomplish moving forward.

How can companies such as GE Digital support companies on their digital transformation journeys?

One of the things that’s really interesting—it is actually one of the things that brought me to GE Digital—comes from the company’s history and my familiarity with its leadership. Within GE, there is a big push around operational excellence, continuous improvement and lean. Not only do we eat our own soup in our own manufacturing processes, we have the insight and ability to work very closely with our internal customers to understand how best to invest and structure, as well as have the best customer experience from a software perspective. GE Aviation, for example, uses our Proficy Plant Applications Manufacturing Execution Software (MES) in its factories, and GE Healthcare’s Hino factory in Japan uses our analytics software which helped it to be recognized as a top 50 factory by the World Economic Forum late last year.

We are putting this continuous improvement and lean operation mindset into our products as well. We are starting to press on user experience and on rapid development capabilities. When you have an exceptionally large manufacturing environment, having that enterprise visibility across global operations becomes particularly important. All of those things combined, all the way down to the heart of how GE is driving continuous improvement and lean, through to the ability to interact very closely with our internal customers, helps us to bring value to the marketplace.  It is more about how we package that software together and how our mindset to help these companies operate at levels that they might not otherwise be able to operate at without our products and services.

One example – early in the pandemic, we received a call from a customer who explained that they could no longer operate their facility effectively due to staff now being at home. They asked if we could guide them and provide remote clients so that they could continue to operate their environment remotely – which we enabled in just a couple of days. It is these types of features and functions that have been available for a long time but may not have been implemented in an automation deployment in the past, but are very necessary now, that are making the experience, and the ability to take full advantage of the systems much more applicable today.

Is there any area of this digital factory that is moving ahead of other facets of it?

There are always buzz items that are floating around, but one of the things that we are starting to truly see activity around is the power of analytics. Really taking advantage of all that data that is floating around and how to get more actionability out of it. How to get specific about analytics to help further optimise, be more predictive, or to rapidly change things within the manufacturing environment. We are starting to see our customer base become much more aligned with driving analytics into their daily operations and experimenting with analytics. That is certainly an area that is now moving beyond the hype.

Process Digital Twins create models of ‘the best way’ to run a process in a given environment – often referred to as ‘the golden batch’. By identifying the most optimal process to manufacture a given product, plant operators can ensure they are consistently delivering against quality, cost and volume objectives.

Many people see MES as the heart of a digital factory. MES systems have come a long way since they hit the factory floor in the Nineties. Can you say a few words about the importance of MES in the modern digital manufacturing era and how the role they play has changed?

Some of the things that have helped evolve the importance of MES over time is that implementation and optimisation is not as large an operation as it might have been in the past. There are more off-the-shelf capabilities. There is greater configurability within the software capability itself that allows users to extend it more efficiently than you might have in the past.

One of the things that GE Digital is bringing forward here from our MES solution set is a multi-modal capability that allows you to have both discrete and process capabilities within one MES. It facilitates all things that in the past might have been a little bit more challenging.

Can you say a few words about how MES provides a strong foundation around which manufacturers can build the Industry 4.0 applications?

It is very much a hybrid mindset with value of on-premise, cloud and edge capabilities. With on-prem or edge we want to make sure that the cost and ROI associated with the solution set makes sense. If you are using a lot of processing capability you want the ability to be able to process and respond in certain timeframes. You might want to have some of that capability sit more on-prem or at the edge. When you begin talking about aggregating data across an entire enterprise, you probably want to look at cloud capabilities. That’s already helping customers like Procter & Gamble to aggregate manufacturing data in the cloud, it’s helping them with their compliance, it’s reducing server costs but it’s also making their factories run faster – as well as creating the gateway to enterprise scale analytics.

There are several benefits from digitisation including productivity increase, increased uptime, and improved compliance – can you say a few words about these and how the market views their importance? 

I think agility is key. Being able to take advantage of these MES systems to change production lines very quickly, to manufacture things that might not have been manufactured the day before, or to stay within your area, but change the formula of what it is that you are producing out of your lines is a huge benefit.

I think optimisation, in terms of waste, speed, and downtime, are all areas from which manufacturers gain benefit. Ultimately, our customers are very astute, and ROI in terms of these capability sets are especially important. We have very upfront conversations about the return that they can expect to see from the digital transformation. As they are implementing these solutions, they are seeing those things come to light relative to speed, quality, predictability, optimisation, and being able to run their environments more effectively and at a better cost point than they might not have been able to do without the capabilities.

Can you tell me about current or upcoming product launches, enhancements?

You are going to see very rapid increases of capabilities and several different launches coming out of the manufacturing side of GE Digital. As an example, we have something we call Proficy CSense 7.0 which we just released, which is somewhat self-serve in terms of allowing end users to be able to take advantage of and modify analytics on their own process digital twins. Plant Applications 8.0, our MES solution, has the multi-modal capabilities with discrete and process that I mentioned earlier. There will be enhanced enterprise level capabilities of our MES, and we will continue to evolve the user experience. We will also evolve the operational agility of that environment in terms of the mobile worker with the ability to have specific personas, users will be able to align their utilisation to their particular persona and how they want to operate.