Smart manufacturing, industrie 4.0, and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) have been the focus of manufacturing initiatives lately. A big part of these ideas is to "connect" the manufacturing process through the use of sensors and connected equipment. With smart manufacturing, it is all about leveraging these connections to deliver a more granular level of understanding about the manufacturing process through data capture and analytics of the manufacturing equipment. But what about the processes that are conducted by human hands? As much as manufacturers continue to automate the manufacturing process through robotics and automation equipment, many environments and processes still require a human physically putting something together or physically doing something. Traditionally, these processes would be "disconnected" and managed largely through paper. To address the challenges associated with managing, analyzing, and optimizing such processes, a start-up out of Somerville Massachusetts has developed a technology that augments the human operator to deliver digital transformation of the human element of manufacturing.
The innovators at Tulip, spun out of the MIT Media Lab, have created a cloud based platform for managing, capturing, and analyzing hands-on work in the manufacturing environment. Tulip’s platform enables engineers to create shop-floor apps, such as visual work instructions, quality and audit forms, and training modules. Engineers can add sophisticated workflow logic through an If-Then-Else trigger environment and connect apps to sensors, machines and smart tools for real time data capture. Shop floor apps are created through Tulip’s app engine without requiring engineers to write any code. With all of the talk and concern around the risk of losing the human element in manufacturing, due to the increasing use of robotics, it is refreshing to see a company focus on improving the work that is still done by human hands. We typically hear the value proposition of deploying robots and automation of improvements to efficiency, quality, and consistency. But what if you could achieve these improvements to your manufacturing process by simply applying analytics and technology to the human effort? This is exactly what they are working on at Tulip.
Data analytics is typically thought about at the machine level. Manufacturers measure things such as throughput, efficiency, and quality by applying sensors to their manufacturing equipment, capturing the data signals, and conducting analytics. The analytics provide an understanding of the health of the manufacturing process and enable them to make any necessary changes to improve the process. Often, such efforts are top down driven. Management drives these projects in order to improve the performance of the business. An alternative approach is to enable the production floor to proactively identify improvement opportunities and take action, a bottom-up approach. For this self-service approach to succeed shop-floor engineers need a flexible platform such as Tulip’s, that allows them to replace paper-based processes with technology and build the applications that enable them to manage hands-on processes. The real time analytics and visibility of hands-on manufacturing processes from Tulip's platform puts the opportunity to identify improvement opportunities directly in the hands of people engaged in the work cells.
Digital transformation in manufacturing is about leveraging advanced digital technology to improve how a company operates. But, as the manufacturing industry focuses on digital transformation it must not forget the value of the human element. Indeed, we don't often think about digital transformation in relation to human effort, but this is exactly the sort of thinking that can deliver some of the early wins in digital transformation.