Have you a Percy Spencer in your operation?

Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director at obsolete equipment supplier EU Automation, discusses how manufacturers can use their dark data for commercial benefit.

In 1945, an engineer named Percy Spencer was testing energy sources for radar equipment in a laboratory, when he realised a chocolate bar in his pocket had somehow melted. Not long after, the microwave oven was born. In the manufacturing industry, it is also possible to make accidental discoveries; one avenue which is proving particularly fruitful is the use of dark data. 

The phrase ‘dark data’ is used to refer to information collected by a business but not used for any operational purpose. For manufacturers, the data can be collected during a production process or from business enterprise operations. The phrase is often met with a shudder due to a lack of understanding of what it is how it can be used. However, dark data doesn’t necessarily mean bad data.

In the dawn of Industry 4.0, fast moving manufacturing facilities have become increasingly data heavy environments, with information sourced from machine logs, equipment sensors and even social media and consumer demand. Data comes from a myriad of places – but not all of this data is used effectively.

In many cases, if analysed and integrated with the value chain, dark data can be used to make better decisions. Currently, data can be captured from such a wide range of inputs that the potential to make smarter and faster forecasts and decisions is rapidly increasing, as long as plant managers know where data it is stored and what to do with it.

Data relating to production information and consumer insight can be used to drive innovation or improve quality; this information can be used by designers and engineers to improve customer experience and product performance. However, not all data collected can be used to produce a meaningful result.

Good data vs bad data
Despite the potential benefits, not all data is worth saving as it can be expensive to store and maintain. If the data is customer related, risks can also arise from breaches and unauthorised sharing, damaging a business’s reputation. In some industries, such as pharmaceuticals, there are stricter requirements on the storage and formatting of data. If a pharmaceutical company had an issue with the storage or formatting of its clinical trial data, it could lose valuable insights and may be liable for any losses.

Dark data can offer manufacturers an untapped resource for potential insight, or may be a costly waste of space. To decide whether to make the most of the data or to erase it, companies first need to understand where their dark data is and where it has come from. For most manufacturers data is generated by either staff or equipment before it is stored and forgotten.

Enforcing data policies and training staff on the handling and analysis of data will help companies make better business decisions. If a new machine or system is added, the plant manager should consider what data it will accumulate and how this will be managed. Manufacturers should be aware of where data is coming from and what regulations specify they can keep.

Being more aware of where data is coming from and how it can be used can benefit manufacturers looking to make intelligent business decisions, as well as those who just want to save time and space. With diligent data analysis, who knows, you might even discover something as groundbreaking as the microwave.

@euautomation #PAuto #TandM

“What 35 years in engineering has taught me!”

Brian Booth, VP of the Water Treatment Innovation Platform of global water, energy and maintenance solutions provider with NCH Europe shares what he has learned.

Brian Booth of NCH Europe

I’ve worked in the engineering industry for the last 35 years, starting out as a chemist in the water treatment sector in 1985.

One of the biggest changes I’ve witnessed over the last three decades is the rise of legislation covering every aspect of the industry. It started with basic health and safety and now reaches into countless niche areas, such as the consideration of industry challenges including legionella outbreaks.

While my generation were classically trained chemists recruited to solve problems with scale, corrosion and bacteria in the water industry, new graduates are now required to have a deeper understanding of general issues affecting the whole industry. Engineers are under increasing pressure to show how localised issues fit into the wider socioeconomic and legislative context.

Another change has been the industry’s approach to transparency, traceability and accountability. In this age of globalisation, formal contracts and job responsibilities allow each action to be traced to an individual. This maximises resource allocation, improves training accuracy and improves safety.

However, all of these changes pale in comparison to the opportunity provided by mobile technology to communicate in real time. The rise of the internet has fundamentally altered the way we interact.

Engineers whose jobs involve working in the field might be asked to respond to another incident while on a job. Twenty years ago engineers on the road used carbon paper to record actions. Now smartphones, tablets and laptops allow a continuous link to the office, using graphs and charts to visualise data on the go. This technology has improved productivity and means that engineers in the field can get more done than ever before.

Building trust
Despite all of these changes, some things have stayed the same. The importance of building valuable customer relationships is as great today as it’s ever been. Inspiring confidence in a customer and building trust wins contracts.

Once you’ve got trust, being able to deliver on your promise is vital. The need to prove reliability and credibility, especially in a service industry, is something I don’t think will ever change. At the end of the day, people like to do business with real people and not faceless corporations.

However, there is no doubt that the industry will see significant changes in the future. The rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) is already allowing us to make use of embedded sensors in engineering environments to provide better big-data transparency and interpretation, using novel graphing and visualisation techniques. I’m already seeing this evolve to the point where our engineers can remotely prompt customers to turn off a valve in response to a cooling system alert, a change in the pH of process water or if the level of a specific chemical such as bromine is too high for example.

Advice to graduates
My advice to new graduates is that, now you’ve left university, you can no longer expect to be spoon fed. You are responsible for your own continuous professional development (CPD) and, while employers provide on-the-job skills to allow you to work on profit-making business functions, you have to read around the subject, to develop professionally.

This might mean becoming a member of a professional body such as the Water Management Society for Chartered Chemists, attending networking sessions, conferences or trade shows or finding a mentor who can guide you to success.