Friday, February 5, 2016

Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) – Evolution or Revolution??

It was one of those days that I got riled up for something I read. For some reason, some of the comments made by the editor of an on-line automation magazine just didn’t set well with me. I’ve known the guy for many years, and he is not a bad person by any means. Maybe it is his job to write something to entice reactions, well, it worked since I had quite a reaction and ended up writing a long email ready to send back to him.

But, on second thought, it may not be a good idea to draw more attention to his article. It may be a better idea to share some of my points here and see what you think about these. Maybe you don’t really care about Internet of Things (IoT) (or Industrial IoT (IIoT) which more accurately reflects the business we are in), but you may as well join in the discussion since it is the “hip thing” to do and let me know your two cents:

“These automation industry suppliers are far up the hype curve and very low on implementing IoT technologies in products. Specifically, most automation vendors are not embedding IoT technology in controllers and sensors.”
What I think:
I agreed that there is clearly a lot of hype, since most people, including me, do not have a clear understanding and agreement of exactly what are IoT technologies. So what are “IoT technologies?” What are some tangible examples? Are we talking about embedding a chip in the PLC that can handle internet protocols directly? Is adding a web server to the PLC considered an IoT technology?

“The industrial automation supplier losers’ are not embedding IoT technology in controllers and sensors. These companies have few if any IoT products and try to put a “spin” (propaganda) on existing products, indicating that they really do fit IoT definitions. Industrial automation vendors hanging onto existing product architectures to preserve revenue and profit numbers are taking a short term view.”
What I think:
This statement again does not clearly identify what are IoT technologies and how they should be used in a manufacturing environment. Since the manufacturing end users can NOT define what are IoT technologies and how they are going to use them, the logical thing for automation suppliers to do is to see what existing products can best fit the IoT concept and provide some of the same benefits to end users. It is not a scheme to protect profits; it is more a short-term tactic to address the IoT requirements from end users.
Some of our manufacturing customers want to have more data for analyses using analytical software in a private cloud. They are looking for ways of gathering data without “changing out” what they already have. So that is another reason why it is necessary to fit the existing technologies to the “IoT” concept.
Comparing existing and “IoT technologies” to films and digital pictures, and CD to MP3 is way too early. Manufacturing guys are conservative in nature and do not have the consumer mentality of rapid change.

“Industry 4.0, Industrial Internet of Things, and Smart Manufacturing concepts are pushing decision making beyond the operator level or enterprise level into end devices, with analytics and rules-based processing in edge devices.”
What I think:
I agree that Edge processing or Fog Computing is very important to reduce the amount of data being transferred. However, I would like to emphasize that this can be accomplished using existing technologies and products, and most applications don’t need to a super computer inside the PLC CPU to accomplish the tasks. There are existing products that can do computing and algorithm processing on the PLC rack, and Mitsubishi Electric is doing so.

“The opportunity to improve manufacturing performance, productivity, and quality is huge but automation suppliers need to move beyond past systems architecture models and embrace new technology.”
What I think:
The preface of this statement is that we are not currently doing this, and that is not true. End users and automation suppliers have been working together to improve manufacturing performance, productivity and quality for years, and it does not require us to move beyond using existing system architectures. Yes, there are probably more advanced ways of doing things, and things can be done better if we have better and more granular connectivity to devices, but this has nothing to do with whether automation suppliers are willing to embrace new technologies. Another part of this equation is the end users. To utilize all new technologies, it also implies that end users will need totally new equipment, network infrastructure, servers, etc. to support all that. The likelihood of this happening is small, and most likely we have to either retrofit existing infrastructure and automation architectures using some “add-on” devices, or have a mixed environment with new and existing co-existing. Either way, using the current platforms to support the IoT concept is needed.

“The question is, who will disrupt the industrial automation industry to bring more value at lower cost to users? A few years from now will we look back and see the dead bodies of industrial automation companies that did not aggressively adopt IoT concepts and technologies.
What I think:
I disagree with the question. For the competitive business of providing automation components, the market is naturally driving the development and product availability. Every one of us is striving to bring more value at lower cost to end users. It is not correct to assume that using the so-called “IoT technologies” will automatically bring lower costs to end users. On the contrary, it will require significant investments from the end user’s side, and many of them prefer adapting their existing assets to fit the IoT concept.

So the question is not whether people embrace or think IoT is a good idea, it is. The question is how to implement the IoT concept and realize the benefits of IoT most cost effectively and most expeditiously. So I disagree that IoT is an “adopting new technologies” problem, it is an issue of adopting the concept and figuring out how to implement it with whatever is available to realize the benefits right away and gradually incorporating newer technologies when they make sense. I don’t think it requires throwing out everything and create all “brand new” products and technologies, and I certainly disagree that if we don’t put internet protocol chips inside the PLC CPU right now, we will die in a few years as stated.

Well, I was told that I have gone overboard; I shouldn’t even bother to respond. What do you think? As a matter of fact, what is your view on IoT and what are the “correct things” to do in your opinion? I am very much interested in knowing what you have to say, don’t be shy, you can simply reply to this blog, send me an email, or text me. It may help me and others at Mitsubishi Electric to define the most proper IoT strategies to benefit Mitsubishi Electric and its customers.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Internet of Things

The popular term in the technology world these days is IoT or Internet of Things. It seems like everyone is using the term in serious business discussions or even casual conversations, no matter whether one really knows what it means or how it is being applied. Not that the basic concept is so difficult, i.e. connecting EVERYTHING to the Internet, but many disagree on the scope “things” should cover and how this concept be applied in different situations. So, since it is a trendy topic, I would like to chime in also, and give my two-cents on how it can be used to help with the business that we are in.

Of course IoT is applicable to all industries such as banking, insurance, financial markets, retails, utilities, etc., but how does it impact manufacturing? I have been working in different aspects of manufacturing automation for my entire career, and have gone through many technology “revolutions” and “wars”. Remember the device network war (DeviceNet vs. SDS, before PROFIBUS was even around?), PLCs versus PC-based controls, Ethernet versus proprietary networks, different Ethernet based networks fighting among themselves, etc.?  The market place has a way of filtering out the noise and settling into a stable state, until the next wave of new buzz words comes along. So now is the age of IoT, or different variations of it such as IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), Industry 4.0; and all the associated terms and concepts such as Big Data, Analytics, Cloud computing. The intriguing thing to me is to figure out how all these IoT approaches will eventually settle into a steady state in the manufacturing world. Is it realistic to think that everything on a manufacturing line will be connected and data being pumped to some mysterious systems in the sky that will do the analyses and tell the manufacturing line how to work? Knowing Manufacturing folks tend to be conservative and want to be in control of their own processes, I wonder whether they will be willing to embrace the concept and let some computers run by IT folks tell them what to do? Not even knowing where these computers are exactly (in the sky somewhere???), Hummmm… Besides, data collection and analyses have been done in the factories for many years, so what are the IoT value propositions to manufacturing? Do we really need more data? Do we really need super computers to help run the lines????

One of the impacts of IoT on manufacturing may be the shifting of certain IT functions that are currently done by manufacturers’ IT departments in house to the cloud thus reducing the in-house IT expenses. But how would it impact the makers of “things” that are used on the floor, such as Mitsubishi Electric? Some of our competitors have been making a lot of noises regarding IoT in the market place trying to demonstrate that they are the “leaders” in this new technology area. But the reality is Mitsubishi Electric has had the e-F@ctory strategy for many years and has successfully proven that our products and technologies can not only be integrated with higher-level networks but also provide information to improve manufacturing processes. IoT really is an extension of the e-F@ctory strategy by going beyond the plant floor data center and local MES and analytical capabilities and leveraging the cloud-based connectivity and capabilities as well as direct connections to more low level devices. A good example is the collaboration IoT project between Mitsubishi Electric and Intel in an Intel factory in Malaysia. The project demonstrates the benefits of IoT in a factory setting by combining Intel's expertise in IoT data analytics and Mitsubishi Electric's "e-F@ctory" automation capabilities. Additionally, in case you missed it, Mitsubishi Electric Corporation announced in March the Internet of Things (IoT) Factory Controller to connect e-F@ctory with the cloud for the emerging IoT ecosystem. IoT Factory Controller will be integrated into e-F@ctory to enable real-time connection between the shop floor and the cloud with robust security. So we are doing something real, and we will leverage the expertise of our e-F@ctory partners instead of trying to be the expert in all aspects of the IoT and ending up becoming master of none! 

Mitsubishi Electric was invited to participate in an IoT project at a major customer recently, and it is a great opportunity for us to utilize the experience from the pilot project and demonstrate the values in an automotive manufacturing environment. With strategic thinking, collaboration with IT domain experts, and strong value propositions, we believe this opportunity can be leveraged into many other similar projects, and we will become the implementation leader of IoT in the industrial world. It is really exciting for me, especially with the new technology development role that I have, to participate in turning a “buzz word” into reality.

Now, let’s toast for the success of this project …Ready? 1, 2, 3 … I – O – T! 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How efficient are you?

My wife and I just celebrated her birthday recently. She has one of those “unfortunate” birthdays that coincide with or right next to the “gift-giving” holidays, namely Valentine’s Day, Christmas, or even Sweetest Day (?). From a man’s perspective, one celebration (and one gift?) can cover two important events, and that is pretty efficient! But I am sure a lot of ladies, probably like my wife, are not thrilled about their significant others combining the two events together in the name of being efficient, it is more like the man is getting away too easily! Well, here are some interesting questions to ponder: what “longer term” effect is there because of this perceived efficiency gain? Will the relationship be hurt because of this action? Are the savings in cost and time worth the harm to the relationship? Most men probably will think it is not a big deal, but is it?

The automotive and many other industries made significant gains in productivity over the past 20 to 30 years, utilizing technologies in all aspects of design and manufacturing processes, reducing wastes, implementing error proofing systems, managing inventories, etc. We can now do a lot more with a lot fewer resources, including labor, materials, time, and capital investments. Companies like to claim productivity improvements by a certain amount, whatever ways these productivity gains are calculated. It is a good thing to be more productive, to get more done in less time, isn’t it? Conventional wisdom says so and intuitively we all agree.

But I would like to look at this from a different angle. I would say that unless one knows exactly what to do with the time, materials, and money saved to create more outputs, the productivity gain really is wasted. Furthermore, if the productivity is measured by the additional outputs one can achieve and the outputs are not benefiting anyone, then the productivity gain is not worth it either. For example, I consider myself fairly efficient in executing tasks, so if a task is usually completed in 10 minutes on average and I can get it done in 5 minutes, I am pretty efficient, am I not?  but if I use the five minutes twirling my thumbs and staring blankly in space, the 5 minutes I gain is wasted, so am I really productive? If a production line can produce 80 vehicles an hour instead of 60 by implementing various productivity improvement methods but it takes a month longer than average to sell the additional 20 vehicles produced, then was the productivity improvement really an efficiency gain in the grand scheme of things? The answer is open to debate for sure.

Anyway, my wife is really nice about the whole thing and I am getting away with one celebration instead of two. But, I am smart enough not to claim any efficiency gain or cost savings in front of her. We all need to be smarter about implementing methods to gain efficiency, improve productivity, save upfront time and costs, etc. Think through the whole thing, look at the whole picture to understand how to utilize the gains achieved so that we don’t do a bunch of things and end up the same as if we didn’t do anything at all!
Happy Chinese New Year, the Year of the Sheep! My wife’s birthday, according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar, is coming up again right after the Chinese New Year so we do have a chance for a second celebration after all!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Which Side Are You On?

One of the things I appreciate about the past holiday season was the availability of many football games and the time to watch quite a few of them. I hesitate to use the word “enjoy” to describe my football watching experience since the level of enjoyment seems to tie to the outcomes of the games directly.

Anyway, one aspect of a football game that not many people pay attention to, but is always interesting to me, is the coin-toss at the beginning to decide which team will have the right to determine how the game will start. The conventional wisdom is that the team who won the coin toss will have certain advantages, but do they really? The decision made after winning the coin toss can be the “right decision” only if the subsequent “execution” justifies it, so how important is winning the coin toss really?

I am sure we all heard about the saying “There are always two sides to every story” or some variation of it. It is your side of the story against my side of the story and we often argue and fight and can never settle on what is the correct side of the story. Just like the coin toss, even if you win the coin toss, or your side of the story wins out, the outcome may not be what you envisioned.  Some wise person actual said this: “Don't believe in everything you hear or you see; there are always three sides to every story: your’s, mine, and the truth...”

In work situations, especially regarding how to solve a particular technical issue, I sometimes find myself arguing about my solutions and my ideas so vehemently that it becomes a mission to convince others that they are wrong regardless of what facts and information were presented. Not only didn’t I seek the “truth” side of the story, I didn’t even evaluate the other side of the story. Often times I will win the battle and lose the war. I think there is a lesson in there somewhere for me.

If you are a die-hard football fan (or an unfortunate Lions’ fan), you may remember the famous “We will take the wind!” choice by the Lions’ coach Marty Mornhinweg in 2002 after winning the coin toss to begin the overtime in a game against Chicago. (If you don’t, follow this link: There was some reasonable logic behind the choice, but the outcome (another Lions’ loss) dictated that the choice was a “dumb” choice because the subsequent execution of the logic behind the choice totally failed. So winning a two-sided coin toss may be nice, having the ability to see your side of the story, my side of the story, and seek to know the truth of the story will be a better way of achieving success, no matter if it is a football game or solving issues at work.

Happy New Year!!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

I want It!!

It has been a few weeks now since the iPhone 6 launch, and my questions are: “Have you gotten one yet?”, “Are you one of those people who stood in line for hours on the first day to get one?”, and the obvious follow-up question - “Why?”

Of course depending which side you are on (i.e. “I need to have it right away!” versus “you are crazy!”), the answers to the “why” question will be drastically different. But, it is really a good question to ponder. Why would people stand in line for hours (or days) just to be the first to have it (and then drop it accidentally and break it, like the guy in New York)? I am not a psychologist and I can’t really analyze this question and provide any good explanation. However, what intrigues me more is why the iPhone 6 is so attractive to certain people that they are willing to spend hours of their time standing in line to get one? It does not matter what Samsung claims is the next BIG thing, no one seems to be willing to stand in line for a new Samsung phone; even though the Samsung phones may have had the features iPhone 6s has more than two years ago and the new Samsung phones coming out have unique features that are more advanced.

Well, I believe it is the infamous “it” factor that sports people like to use to describe why some players are superstars or always seem to win. They may not be the strongest, quickest, most skilled athletes but they just win. So iPhone has “it” and its competitors don’t, and why is it? Do you remember when Apple almost went under as a company? Before iPods, iPhones, and then iPads came along and totally changed the use of these “smart” devices in the marketplace and saved the company? Apple basically created new markets with these devices because they are innovative, unique, “easy to use” by the non-techie customers, and they became trendy and “cool” for young people, i.e. they drew new groups of customers and  also converted a lot of people from using the perceived “outdated” technologies.

Even in the automation world, wouldn't it be great if customers were beating down companies’ doors to buy their products? It is paramount for companies to create innovative, unique products that meet customer requirements, and on top of that, make them easy to use by the employees they have. In other words, producing better (even much better) “me too” products is good but will not generate the excitement necessary to create the paradigm shift required for customers to move away from using products from their existing automation providers. Companies need to figure out the pain points of their potential customers and create unique and exciting solutions to sway them to their camps. It will require automation companies to take risk, to try new approaches, to think differently, and to act differently. Manufacturing people tend to be more conservative and resistant to change; and the responsibility is for automation companies to get them enthusiastic about the products and solutions and win them over. I am glad that Mitsubishi is heading that way with emphasis on custom solutions and striving for new ideas.

Well, I did get my iPhone 6 Plus, and no, I didn't stand in line for it. I checked the availability using one of those websites updating the inventory information on iPhones in my neighborhood, called to reserve it, and went into the store and got it. I did run into a young man ahead of me at the register all excited about getting one, until he found out that he was not “eligible” to get one until three days later since his two year contract with the Cell Phone company had not expired yet. The look of disappointment on his face was quite pronounced. We will need to strive to make our products so popular and demanding that our customers will have the same look of disappointment when they cannot get our products because we ran out of stock.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

This is my spot!

My wife and I joined a health club a few years ago, and it was a very good decision since it provides us opportunities to be more active and stay healthier. We used the club a lot, quite a few times each week actually. One thing I started doing, not long after we joined, is to participate in “Group Fitness” classes. One advantage of taking these classes, no matter they are cardio, Yoga, weight training, or other special classes such as Insanity, is to help us become more committed to exercise since there are set schedules to follow and defined length of time to do all the jumping, twisting, lifting, sweating, … without quitting (it is kind of embarrassing to walkout in the middle of a class, isn't it?) Discipline is the key to exercise, right? And taking these classes definitely helps us becoming more discipline.

Another thing I learned from taking these classes is that most people have their favorite spots in the classroom. I guess it is understandable if one takes the same class week after week at the same time on the same day, one will feel very comfortable occupying the same spot in the classroom to do the exercises. We are all creature of habits! What surprises me is that people become very “territorial” about “their spots!” When there are new people in the class, unknowingly taking the spots of regulars’, the atmosphere become “tense” and funny looks and cold stares are exchanged. For the most parts, that is the extent of hostility until recently, an instance of “invasion of my spot” escalated into verbal confrontation and throwing of exercise equipment between two people, Wow! Really? Over a spot to exercise? I though we suppose to exercise to release the stress and not to be stressed by coming to an exercise class witnessing people fighting over a spot.

We are all territorial in many ways. We don’t like people telling us what to do or how to do things; we want to tell them to mind their own business and don’t get into our space. We know what we are doing, we like the way we are, and the way we handle things are perfect! If my “spot” is a PLC programming expert, who are you, a new comer to the project, going to tell me a better way to program? I am in my comfort zone, and how dare you to disturb my comfort? I have been doing servo applications for 20 years, and you are taking my spot on the project team? Seriously? Cold shoulders are the least you deserve, we murmured in our minds. Hopefully we don’t see any “throwing of PLC equipment at each other” in these situations, but purposely not cooperating with others or sabotaging the progress of the overall project is just as bad, if not worse than the actual verbal and physical confrontations. All companies preach team work, but team work will not be real if we are so rigidly protecting a “spot” or “position” and not willing to have any flexibility.
It is almost the time for me to go to my exercise class, and I am going to go early to make sure I get my spot. However, if someone takes my spot, I will do my best to enjoy the class and move to a different spot … with a smile and not a grudge.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

He is too nice!!

Several colleagues and I recently had a meeting with a team of engineers and managers at a customer to discuss some technologies Mitsubishi is developing that should meet this customers’ requirements. We went through the concepts, showed a prototype and mock-up components, demonstrated a new software package, and discussed the plans and schedules. The customer provided comments on the new product ideas, re-emphasized their requirements, and provided some suggestions for improvements. In other words, it was a fairly typical customer meeting, like many I have attended before. However, after the meeting, one of my colleagues made a comment that was very interesting, “He is very nice to us today! Almost too nice.” referring to the manager of the customer team.

This particular manager usually has very strong opinions on many issues, tends to be critical about “lacking the features that he wants” in Mitsubishi products, is always demanding certain products or technologies to be available “tomorrow” so he can meet his project schedule. I am sure we have all run into customers like him, demanding, critical, asking for everything, complaining about the product availability and costs… but he didn't behave anything like that at all this particular day. He was nice, commenting on the new features that he saw and liked, even though the timing does not quite fit his requests, he gave us his suggestions and comments for improvement and his ideas on the development, all in a very cooperative and nice way! You know what, as soon as my colleague made the comment, an alarm sounded within me: This is not good!!What triggered in me, was my past experience as an end user. I had met so many salespeople and been through so many sales presentations on various technologies and products. A lot of times, what the person was selling was interesting to me in general but did not have relevancy to the projects or tasks that I was responsible for. So what did I do? I was polite and courteous, I asked questions showing that I was interested in what they were talking about (I actually was), I made constructive suggestions and comments to them trying to provide some value to the conversations, but the bottom line was that the product or technology did not have direct application for me and would not be used on my projects any time soon. So I was “nice” to them, but that wasn't really what they wanted.

I learned quite a while ago that if a person cares about a particular subject, topic or issue, he or she will show a lot of passion about it, whether positive or negative. When people show no emotion about it, generally it means they “don't care” one way or the other because it is not relevant to them. So I think we are in a bit of trouble with this particular customer and we have to figure out how to “stir-up” their passion toward Mitsubishi technologies again.

We also need to realize that it is not enough to generate “customer satisfaction” any more, it is necessary for us to create “customer enthusiasm” (borrowing an old GM slogan) to make our customers really passionate about our products and be excited to use them in their applications. In order to do so, we have to be innovative, creative, open-minded and understand where customers are heading in the future. Providing solid, reliable, cost effective products and solutions is necessary, but we have to give customers more than that. We have to take back the leadership position in customers’ eyes.

It will be fun but challenging to get there, but I am passionate about getting there and not just about feeling “nice” about it!! Let’s get going!!