The most heralded benefit of the fourth industrial revolution (or Industry 4.0) is the availability of increasing volumes of data concerning the performance of manufacturing operations (so-called “big data”). These data range from the enterprise level, to the plant level, and down to the individual machine level.

Naturally, the more data you have, the more accurately you can paint a picture of the performance of the enterprise, the plant and even the machine. But, as with much in life, it's not just the volume of data, it's what you do with it. And the sheer scale of the task has many manufacturers perplexed, particularly at the smaller end of the market.

One company that is promoting an alternative solution is Rockwell Automation, and the key to the solution is in the active participation of the machine builders.

Remote troubleshooting is nothing new. A machine breaks down and the manufacturer of that machine can access sensor data to determine the cause and initiate repairs.

More recently, this has extended to preventive maintenance, with critical components such as bearings monitored 24/7. Today, remote machine monitoring and machine diagnostics (RM&D) is a growing trend, with a number of dedicated software suites available to simplify the process for manufacturers who are not in the market to design their own solutions.

However, RM&D remains an addon. The vision of the future portrayed by Rockwell Automation is one where Industry 4.0 is integral to the machine, built in at inception by the machine builder.

With this level of integration, the machine builder can remain in control of the machine 24/7, making small adjustments to keep the machine running at optimum efficiency.

This makes perfect sense. Nobody (including the user) knows the intimate workings of the machine better than those who built it. And, with multiple identical or similar machines operating at different locations (and in different manufacturing companies), that leads to an ever expanding knowledge base.

Much has been made of the concept and merits of high-value manufacturing. And one of the concepts that we are urged to embrace along the route to high-value manufacturing is the service aspect – the so-called “servitisation” of a product.

Here it is worth looking at some of the recent evolution of the IT industry, where software as a service - or SaaS - has become a the accepted delivery model for many business applications. And it has even spawned several specific variants covering platforms (PaaS), desktops (DaaS), managed software (MSaaS), mobile backends (MBaaS), and information technology management (ITMaaS).

So what chance for MaaS - or machinery as a service?

There certainly remain a number of barriers. For example, why would any manufacturer consent to its process optimisation data being used to improve the performance of similar machinery operated by a competitor?

However, the concept of paying for a guaranteed service, and even a guaranteed level of manufacturing output, has the potential to rewrite the economics of the manufacturing enterprise.

And it all starts with big data.

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