Of Crowd Power and Manufacturing Intelligence

Bringing Social and Computer Networks to Bear on New Classes of Problems

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Rockwell Automation

There's always been safety and strength in numbers, but now there appears to be a surprising amount of intelligence as well.

Social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and many others give their users the collective power to help groups and companies solve some of their toughest problems, including ones they've never been able to deal with before. That was the primary message delivered by Andrew McAfee in his "Enterprise 2.0 Meets Manufacturing 2.0" keynote address at Manufacturing Perspectives 2010, just before the opening of Rockwell Automation's Automation Fair 2010 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida. McAfee is leadership and IT strategist and principle research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at MIT's Sloan School of Management.

"Five years ago, I heard the phrase Web 2.0 and thought it was hype, but then I began to use the tools and realized it really was a whole new version of the web," McAfee said. "The Web 2.0 toolkit also is extremely relevant to companies in older economies, can help them do things better than ever before, and solve some really nasty problem in new ways." Of course, these Web 2.0 tools include many now-famous web phenomena like Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others.

Not surprisingly, many of McAfee's observations contained threads subsequently picked up by Keith Nosbusch and Sujeet Chand in their presentation to the Manufacturing Perspectives media event. Nosbusch is Rockwell Automation's chairman and CEO, and Chand is senior vice president and CTO. They explained that the three main trends now driving productivity throughout industry are agility, sustainability and productivity, and that these are enabled by Ethernet networking.

"Manufacturing intelligence is transforming data into actionable information, and Rockwell Automation is unique in our ability to deliver this Integrated Architecture, as well as the Intelligent Motor Controls and the other solutions and services pieces that users need to be more effective," Nosbusch explained. "This is all enabled by the fact that open, standard networking also allows our customers to use common configuration tools and visualization to reduce costs. Ethernet just gives everyone a common backbone, so they can get the actionable knowledge they need, and this is going to be the next wave of productivity for manufacturing customers."

McAfee noted that Web 2.0's main operating characteristic is that it tends to throw out the old rules and structure required in Web 1.0. "Web 2.0 is much less respectful of the old mantra that you need to control the process to get good outcomes, but we've also learned that the Internet has a very finely grained structure that's also very dynamic," he said. "The main commonalities among Web 2.0 successes are that they're simple and intuitive to use, all their tools are social, they're networked via many methods, they made use of multiple media, and they're frictionless, which means there are only a few seconds between having an idea and the ability to publish it. All the barriers to contributing are falling away, and so there's a lot more content and people helping each other."

As a result, Web 2.0 can help manufacturers by bringing its new, collaborative approaches to bear on tough problems, according to McAfee. For example, Web 2.0's "crowd analytics" and "crowd sourcing" functions were recently used by the 60,000 players of the Foldit online game to improve simulated solutions for 3-D protein-folding problems that had eluded traditional scientists and computer programs for many years. "In five of 10 cases, the player groups produced protein folding solutions that were a lot better than the usual scientific simulations."

In the future, both the speed of competition and collaboration will only increase, McAfee said. "Don't expect a return to business as usual, but instead reexamine how you're tackling tough problems like these, and use some Web 2.0 tools to help solve them and make important decisions," he said. "Put social technology at the core of your company, and—as Nelson Mandela said—try to find everyone's spark of genius."

To further aid these efforts, Chand added, visitors to Automation Fair 2010 will be able to see Rockwell Automation's new mechatronics tools, which are integrated into its smart, sustainable architecture. They'll also be able to preview PlantPAx 2.0's new capabilities, including its high-availability functions. Likewise, FactoryTalk will show off its improved manufacturing intelligence capabilities. Also, in the intelligent motor controls area, attendees will see the expanded power range of the PowerFlex 750 and 7000 families.

Finally, the fair also will feature the release of the Micro 800 PLC family for simple, standalone machines, and the Connected Components Workbench to tie formerly separate manufacturing equipment into a single software environment.

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