Finding solutions to evolving manufacturing challenges

Posted on 23 Jun 2022 by Joe Bush
Partner Content

Not only is the entire landscape of the manufacturing industry changing, but it’s changing at a rate not seen for over a generation. A mere glance reveals a vastly different looking sector compared to just two years ago, before the pandemic.

Here, Wes Sylvester, Vice President, Cisco Industry Solutions Group, explains the manufacturing challenges that this change has created and how the company provides solutions for its manufacturing customers.

There are few sectors or companies that have emerged unscathed from the upheaval of the previous two years; indeed, many companies are still dusting themselves off and dealing with the fallout of events such as COVID-19 and Brexit. In addition, the current geopolitical unrest in Ukraine has placed added pressure on already strained supply chains and has caused energy costs to skyrocket. And that’s before we consider the need for all manufacturers to reduce their impact on the environment.

A plethora of current challenges

The current conflict in Eastern Europe has also seen a rise in cyber attacks, which were already exponentially increasing with ever more sophisticated malicious attack vectors. One drawback of embracing technology, IoT, connectivity, and the drive towards digital transformation, is by increasing the number of connected devices within a business, plant, or factory, the more you increase the area of vulnerability to attack.

Networks are now more complex than they’ve ever been. They are especially complex on the factory floor where manufacturers are looking to bring legacy equipment onto networks which they were never designed to operate. Couple this with new hybrid-work environments, which expand the digital footprint of the manufacturer beyond the four walls of the factory, and you have potentially hundreds of access points for bad actors. And of course, when the pandemic hit, manufacturers had almost no time to implement new security solutions or collaboration tools, and connect legacy devices from the factory floor to the network. “There is no greater threat to a manufacturer than cyber threats,” Wes comments. “The attack surface is on the manufacturing floor and goes all the way to the employee and the machine.

cisco worker
Hybrid-work environments have expanded the digital footprint of the manufacturer beyond the four walls of the factory

“Manufacturers are more cyber vulnerable now than at any other point in time. Solutions that have increased production efficiency can also serve as a gateway for bad actors into the network, if not properly protected. All it takes is one weak link to let a bad actor in. If a manufacturer doesn’t have robust security, it isn’t a case of if they’ll experience a breach, it is when.”

Linked to the increase in digitisation is the massive influx of data within manufacturing operations; a key component of Industry 4.0. Metrics and data at manufacturers’ fingers tips can now give them insight into the efficiencies and inefficiencies of their production lines.

However, merely having access to this data is not enough. A common phrase mentioned when discussing data is that it is ‘the new oil’. This belief is slightly erroneous. When oil is stored and sitting idle it still has an intrinsic value – data does not. Data only has a worth when it is put to use. “The challenge is what do manufacturers do with that information? And how can they leverage it to make real-time decisions that reduce downtime?” Wes adds. In addition, manufacturers cannot afford to overlook the importance of having the right skills in order to exploit the data that is available and reap the benefits.

The skills challenge

On the subject of skills, the manufacturing workforce is older now than at any other point in time since the industrial revolution. Baby boomers are retiring, the average age of a manufacturing operative in the UK is now over 50, and there aren’t enough skill-based workers from younger generations in the manufacturing industry to replace them.

Since the pandemic, we’ve also seen the great resignation with younger skill-based workers leaving jobs for alternative employments. Simply put, there are more jobs available in the manufacturing sector than there are skilled workers to fill them. Wes continues: “Data shows that nearly three and a half million manufacturing jobs will be needed to be filled over the next decade. Two million of them won’t be. And that is why Cisco is investing in higher education programmes that take action to train the next generation of skilled workers.”

Cisco skills
There are more jobs available in the manufacturing sector than there are skilled workers to fill them

Another huge challenge for manufacturers right now is of course, sustainability. There are new regulatory requirements that are forcing manufacturers to minimise their carbon footprint. Collaboration tools are a great solution here. A May 2020 Cisco Sweden study showed that transitioning 15-30% of external meetings to a virtual form would translate into an estimated $2.4-4.7bn per year and a reduction of carbon emissions of 550,000 tonnes.

Finally, time pressures are more acute for manufacturers today than they have ever been. Not only are they having to deal with the aforementioned challenges around supply chains, availability of materials, and energy costs, the profile of B2B customers has also shifted and is starting to mirror the B2C model. There are now expectations around same day delivery, real-time order tracking, customisation options, convenient return logistics and a seamless experience across mobile, web and in-store – all factors that were once the sole preserve of the consumer.

Therefore, costly downtime is always going to be a major challenge facing manufacturers. Time is money and for every second, minute, or hour that a production line is offline, it can ultimately cost the manufacturer millions. “We already know about the reduced workforce, and this means manufacturers need to do more with less by leveraging a secure network infrastructure to deliver solutions like analytics to the plant floor to help drive higher plant performance,” adds Wes.

With manufacturing teams and sites now dispersed throughout the world, how vital is it that communication channels/platforms are clear, flexible, reliable, and secure?

One of the outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen manufacturing teams spread and dispersed across the globe. Restrictions on travel meant that video calls calls replaced flights and site visits, dramatically changing how organisations communicated; not only with their customers and suppliers, but internally as well.

In some cases, teams and departments are operating completely separately and so manufacturers need to be utilising collaboration solutions that not just enable, but actively foster a culture of co-creativity and communication.

Leng d’Or, for instance, is a global snack food manufacturer based in Spain. Following the COVID-19 outbreak and the cessation of travel, the company required a solution that would allow them to establish a new production line in New Jersey (from their base in Europe). “They used Webex Expert on Demand, which is a collaboration solution that leverages augmented reality headsets from technology partners, like RealWear or Google Glass,” says Wes. “Factory floor workers in New Jersey would wear these headsets, enabled with a camera, and collaborate with designers and engineers in Barcelona by showing them exactly what they were seeing. Together they could create a solution. Now that travel has started again, Leng d’Or estimates their total travel is still down 30-40% because of this solution.”

What are the key benefits of the tools available from Cisco?

Wes explains that there are a broad range of products available, however, essentially there are three key areas that manufacturers should be paying attention to:

Networking: Digitisation cannot happen without a strong network infrastructure in place. This is what will ultimately enable video and mobility on the factory floor, collect and analyse data to drive decision making, and improve equipment utilisation to reduce operating costs. This can include Cisco Meraki technology there is a broad portfolio of solutions available that includes switches, routers, private 5G, SD-WAN and more.

Collaboration: These are the tools that keep workers connected to each other. These solutions include Webex, and Webex Expert on Demand which leverage the RealWear headsets from Cisco’s technology partners. Ultimately these solutions ensure continuity of business operations, improve worker productivity, and can reduce response and repair times.

Security: Last but certainly not least, is security. Manufacturing is usually in the top five most attacked industries. A robust security solution is necessary to protect critical business, customer and supplier data, and maintain strong regulatory compliance. The Cisco portfolio of security solutions drives complete visibility over the networking, to include OT assets and legacy equipment, embeds security into factory workflows and operations, and allows the creation of segmentation across factories down to the macro level to protect individual zones, lines, equipment and devices.

What are the advantages for manufacturers who partner with Cisco?

“Cisco has been serving as a trusted advisor to global manufacturers for more than two decades,” continues Wes. “We have a comprehensive approach to manufacturing, from work cell to the cloud, or the factory to the carpeted floor spaces. Together with our ecosystem of solution partners, we help manufacturers put the right network infrastructure in place that allows them to leverage key data metrics, empower their workforce, and safeguard their operations.

“We don’t look at all manufacturers the same. We know that they are all different and have different challenges. We tailor programmes and solutions to meet manufacturers wherever they are in their digital transformation, solving their business challenges. If they’re ready for artificial intelligence and machine learning, then that’s what we will empower them with. If they’re just getting going in their digital journey, needing foundational network infrastructure, then that’s where we’ll start.

“Not all manufacturers are in the same place of their digital transformation – some are clear digital natives and are ready for artificial intelligence and advanced analytics. Others are testing the waters and need help developing a secure network that enables some of the critical solutions in the modern manufacturing industry, such as collaboration tools. We work with manufacturers across that spectrum, helping them to be more agile and resilient.”