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Smart manufacturing platforms: Industrial giants face diverse competition

Whether you call them IIoT platforms or smart manufacturing platforms, large industrial companies are finding themselves competing with each other but also new companies from different markets, specifically the computer tech world

Every factory is different. It’s in a different location, makes different things, and uses different methods and systems. 

However, every factory shares some aspects of its operation with every other factory.

At the base level, it obviously requires a building. That building needs to have power and other utilities supplied to it. The machinery – whether it includes robotics and automation equipment or not – these days, are more than likely connected to computing devices and the internet. 

Further, the computing environment is the place where you will find specialized software, such as manufacturing execution services and computer-aided manufacturing software, and computer-aided design and engineering applications, or even a product lifecycle management systems.

Lately, a lot of people talk about artificial intelligence as being ready to make an impact on industrial processes.

AI has the power to do a lot of different things, depending on how it is applied. Here are some simple examples:

  • An algorithm within an engineering design application can sort of “auto-complete” your ideas through something called “generative design”;
  • AI can be used to manage the huge amount of documentation involved, saving time searching for relevant information; or
  • AI systems can be used to monitor the power usage across an entire operation, which can lead to significant reductions in energy usage and, therefore, significant savings.

Taken together, all of the above features of the modern manufacturing or industrial operation are increasingly referred to as “smart manufacturing” or “digital manufacturing”.

We published a long list of jargon related to digital manufacturing a while back, and it may be of use. But in short, the industrial world is changing and becoming more computerised.

This is also often referred to as the “OT-IT convergence”, where operations technology – machinery and traditional industrial equipment – is being connected to information technology – which refers to computers and the mysterious digital lifeforms evolving inside them.

On the one level, some people might find it easy to understand the trend – it’s just the growth and evolution of the industrial internet of things.

On another, actually getting onto the IIoT and transitioning to the OT-IT world can be fraught with complexity and difficulty, not to mention jargon.

This is clearly a market opportunity for many companies large and small. The small ones supply individual solutions for specific requirements, while the larger companies can provide an all-encompassing “smart manufacturing platform”.

To illustrate, a factory automation provider can supply some robotics and automation technology and make good money doing that. Customers get what they need and it’s a market that is currently worth $200 billion globally, according to Allied Market Research.

But looking beyond the factory, perhaps to a network of factories across the world, larger manufacturers are turning to providers of smart manufacturing platforms.

As alluded to above, any company can take individual pieces and put together its own smart manufacturing platform, and it could be said that it’s simply an IIoT or OT-IT platform upon which anything can be connected and configured in any way required.

But there are companies out that either market their offerings specifically as smart manufacturing platforms, or their services are categorised by researchers as smart manufacturing platforms.

For example, ABI Research recently took a closer look at 11 companies it says provide smart manufacturing platforms. They are:

  • ABB Ability;
  • Bosch IoT Suite;
  • Emerson Plantweb;
  • Fujitsu Colmina;
  • GE Predix;
  • Hitachi Lumada;
  • PTC ThingWorx;
  • SAP Leonardo;
  • Schneider Electric EcoStruxure;
  • Siemens MindSphere; and
  • Telit deviceWISE

ABI says it analysed and ranked them in order of “innovation, out-of-the-box thinking, and plans to deploy and support transformative technologies such as augmented reality / mixed reality, digital twins, edge intelligence, protocol adaptability and connectivity, robotics integration, and other transformative technologies, such as AI and blockchain”.

ABI says that it found four companies and their offerings stood out, and placed them in the following order:

  1. PTC Thingworx
  2. GE Predix
  3. ABB Ability
  4. Siemens MindSphere

Pierce Owen, principal analyst of smart manufacturing at ABI Research, says: “PTC emerged as the leader, excelling with its innovative initiatives across transformative technologies, and GE Predix came in second.

“GE has ridden a roller-coaster of expectations and disappointment over the last few years, especially with GE Digital, its software subsidiary.

“GE Digital led the way out of the gate in this fourth industrial revolution, launching Predix back in 2013 and making grandiose promises about improving asset utilization and operations optimization.

“It largely failed to deliver on those promises with a quite slow rollout, but since then, it has built up its technological capabilities and partnerships and now offers a legitimate platform with many solutions.”

Some people expected this market – whether you call it IIoT or smart manufacturing platform or whatever – to be dominated by two companies. Namely, General Electric, because it was the first to launch a specialised IIoT platform in Predix; and Siemens, which is thought to have the most complex or comprehensive solution.

ABI consultants say they are surprised to find Siemens MindSphere rank fourth. But then, this market is diversifying.

It’s illustrative of how much the world of computer tech is affecting traditional industry that SAP is included in the assessment. The new trend is, after all, mostly about software, according to some people.

Owens says: “Siemens had developed quite advanced capabilities around the Mindsphere platform, but up until now it has struggled to connect devices and equipment from other manufacturers without OPC UA.

“To their credit though, they have taken steps that could lead to a jump to the top spot within a year.

“At this point, the platform providers appear to have found a balance between competing for market share and implementing these open best practices to drive innovation.

“This does not mean that all these platforms will survive, but it will ultimately benefit the customers by making it easier to deploy the best solutions.”