Twitter for the Shop Floor: How One Company is Facilitating Conversations Between Machines & Humans in Manufacturing Thinkstock

Twitter for the Shop Floor: How One Company is Facilitating Conversations Between Machines & Humans in Manufacturing

iGear looked to the most ubiquitous social media communication platform for inspiration on how to take conversations on the manufacturing floor to the next level.

VARs know how to sell products like nobody’s business. When it comes to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), they’re killing it with sales of sensors that can make just about any industry “smart.” In manufacturing, much of the cutting edge technology resellers are making money from is in hydraulics, robotics, RFID and other hardware used to collect data, says Tony Fink, director of partner and client success at iGear. Where they’re struggling is getting a grasp on what to do with that data once it’s collected.

The McKinsey Global Institute says that despite the immense potential factories have for value creation in the IoT era, an estimated 70 percent of data captured in manufacturing goes unused. Channel partners are having difficulty taking the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to the next level and “productizing” smart technology.

Metrics from the manufacturing floor don’t do much good if they’re just fed into a forensic spreadsheet somewhere for a manager to analyze later. To keep operations running smoothly, there needs to be an closed-loop communication system that enables real-time conversations between the many supply chain stakeholders—including the machinery itself, which is constantly pinging performance data from sensors.

The folks at iGear wanted to figure out a way to graduate manufacturing floor conversations from humans squawking into two-way radios to a system that incorporates the constant messages being sent and received from sensors on machinery into what’s being conveyed between humans. For inspiration, they turned to the most ubiquitous communication platform around: Twitter.

On Twitter, users can see a feed of their curated news sources. Sometimes that includes people, but in many cases it’s bots that are generating the tweets we see when we log on to our feeds. Tweets and messages can be specifically targeted to certain users with @mentions, or grouped into more general conversations using hashtags. It’s a simple and extremely effective way of communicating in the digital age.

iGear took the Twitter premise and applied it to the manufacturing floor. News sources on its SQUEAKS platform include every asset that’s broadcasting, whether machine or human. This conveyer is running too high, that drilling machine is out of skew, this operator is consistently having trouble with assembly instructions. These messages become broadcasts called squeaks, configurable to each user or job function.

The SQUEAKS platform goes a step further by turning that communication into real-time reporting. Once a squeak goes out, users can assign ownership of it, assign a time-date stamp, record the exact location and set it to escalate to senior management if it isn’t dealt with in a timely manner. It introduces a new dynamism for the shop floor, becoming a support ticket for the digital age.

Fink says one of the motivating factors behind SQUEAKS is what he refers to as “the great shift change” as baby boomers move toward retirement and the workforce is taken over by millennials who are ushering in a whole new paradigm of communication. The platform integrates with tablets and certain wearables, and users send voice notes rather than scribbling manual notes on clipboards. As closely as possible, iGear wanted the platform to mimic the way people communicate in their private lives.

Don Korfhage, president, CEO and founder of iGear, says he has teenagers who don’t know how to function without a cell phone. They find directions, check the weather and communicate with teachers, coaches and classmates using their phones. “At first glance, it’s annoying as a parent,” he says. “But if you take a step into what they’re doing, it’s so impressive.” In our private lives, we connect high-res photos and video streams with our communications. It’s rich, data-oriented information transmitted as naturally—or in some cases, more naturally—as the spoken word.

Toyota, for instance, empowers its front-line employees to integrate with production using the SQUEAKS platform. Line operators with concerns about a specific machine can take a photo, attach performance data from the last hour and share it in a way that facilitates collaboration between peers. Moreover, this data can be shared with OEMs to let them be a part of the collective conversation, streamlining maintenance issues like when to order new parts or provide a system upgrade.

For distributors and system integrators in the channel, SQUEAKS lets partners leverage connected manufacturing to establish ongoing support and maintenance services to clients. Partners can sell the sensors, connect them all on the platform and funnel the data into insights that provide a higher value-add to customers to help them increase stickiness.

Fink says it’s the ability to make machines team players that really elevates manufacturing communications. Machine-to-machine communication was the primary selling point for a long time for the IIoT. But now we have the capability to have machine-to-human conversations, which is a whole new ball game.

We’ve seen disparate industrial technologies emerging that all hold promise for a new digital industrial revolution: sensors, data and reporting dashboards are giving managers deeper insights than ever before into shop floor performance metrics. But we’ve yet to really bring those technologies together to form a seamless, natural way to bring manufacturing into a new digital paradigm. Could technology like SQUEAKS be the next step toward this future way of working? Maybe—if machines don’t learn to generate memes and clickbait, we might be off to a good start.

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