Episode Six – The Smarter Factory

Discover how technology is revolutionizing the factory floor – transforming disconnected activities into intelligent processes.

The manufacturing industry was a whole different world when Jerry Foster joined the workforce in the early 1990s. Through a collaboration with his manufacturing colleagues, Jerry started to implement new technologies and processes on the factory floor– pushing forward the smart manufacturing movement and leading in the founding of Plex Systems.

In this episode of Technology Powers X, we explore how:

  • Technology is revolutionizing the factory floor – transforming disconnected activities into intelligent and real-time processes.
  • Demand for accountability, transparency, and efficiency across supply chains has resulted in smart manufacturing transitioning from a ‘want’ to a ‘need.’
  • Dell EMC PowerMax provides the reliability and performance that the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform requires to support mission critical operations across the globe.

Additional Resources

Dell Solutions with Intel®‎

“Today, the wheels of manufacturing turn on a cloud.”

— Danielle Applestone, Technology Powers X Host

Guest List

  • Jerry Foster Chief Technology Officer and co-founder, Plex Systems Inc.
  • Darrel Schueneman Manager of Cloud Operations, Plex Systems Inc.
  • Todd Weeks Group Vice President of the Platform and Cloud Operations Group, Plex Systems Inc.
  • Vince Westin Data Storage Evangelist, Dell Technologies

Danielle Applestone: On any given day, today for instance, among thousands of manufacturers, a sort of ballet begins. It’s comprised of customer orders, suppliers, transportation, materials, inventory, sales, accounting, human resources, each interacting with machine-like precision. Outside Detroit, an electronics manufacturer has expanded globally with a new plant in Mexico, where at once would have taken months, the new plant was up in 90 days. With each plant flawlessly duplicating the products of the other. In Oxnard, California, a food manufacturer fields urgent calls from prospective clients. 2020 has brought a spike in demand. Clients call to say their usual suppliers can’t keep up, so can they? Finding their way to yes, a process which once might have taken days, is completed in hours. In Fredericktown, Ohio, a parts manufacturer is tracking the 6 million finished and work in progress parts on its shop floor. Under its old paper based system, this would have been near impossible. Today with a keystroke, every single piece is tracked in real time. These manufacturers and countless hundreds of others around the world, have something in common. They employ smart manufacturing; a strategy that empowers innovation by connecting people, systems, machines, and supply chains. Stakes are high with the slimmest possible margin for error. Over the next few minutes, I’ll take you backstage to tour the remarkable technology that maintains this harmony, while scarcely ever missing a step.

I’m Danielle Applestone, engineer and entrepreneur. You’re listening to Technology Powers X, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. In this episode, technology powers smart manufacturing.

Not so long ago, to run a manufacturing business was to be everywhere at once; management meetings, troubleshooting on the shop floor, taking stock at the warehouse, on the phone to suppliers, meetings with accounting and HR. But until there was smart manufacturing, chaos was too often the norm.

Jerry Foster: Smart manufacturing to me, is just simply the combination of two concepts: connecting things and automating things.

Danielle Applestone: Jerry Foster is CTO and co-founder of Plex Systems. He’s had a front row seat as smart manufacturing transformed 21st century industry.

Jerry Foster: You think of all the manual processes we did back in the day, nothing was connected. Very few things were automated. There was no robots or co-bots or any of those things. Everything was pencil and paper and so we’ve come an incredibly long way.

Danielle Applestone: In the 90s, Jerry Foster worked in the computer department of a forging company, where it was evident that the old way of doing things was hurting the business.

Jerry Foster: Every department, every person in the company, they basically did what was right in their own eyes. A couple of things come to mind. One scenario, we’d have parts that were running too long during the daytime, five thousandths of an inch too long. And then in the evening shift, they were 10 thousandths of an inch too short.

Danielle Applestone: Some internal detective work revealed the source of the problem.

Jerry Foster: It turns out, each shift had their own personal favorite method for setting up the machines, and so that would differ from shift to shift. And sometimes, when one shift was over, they would purposely screw up all the settings so the next shift couldn’t run the parts as well. So there was no consistency throughout this forging facility.

Danielle Applestone: Jerry Foster and others, a picture began to form. Industry lacked a common means of information sharing. And without it, small problems blossomed into big ones.

Jerry Foster: I remember employees would work hard all night making parts, only to find out in the morning that we had made the wrong parts. So we would really quick scramble around and make new parts and work really hard and literally call a helicopter to come pick up a couple of bins of parts and deliver them to Detroit, so we didn’t shut down the factory. There was constant little things like forklift driver would drive around for 30 minutes, because he couldn’t find the raw material that was needed at three presses. We’re just sitting there idle, waiting and the operators were just standing there waiting, while this forklift driver drove all the way around the plant, trying to figure out what was going on.

Danielle Applestone: A well-choreographed ballet, it was not. The costs quickly mounted.

Jerry Foster: You couldn’t do your job because you were always putting out fires. You were always solving the same problems over and over. And you were trying to find information or correct information or figure out who needed this information where and it was just always a hassle. You were running around like a chicken with your head cut off, is what it felt like. And so what we were solving was, how do you have one source of truth? And that’s kind of in two directions. The reports and the data that you’re looking at, what did we produce yesterday? How much scrap is in the facility today? Do those actually reflect the reality of what’s going on in the factory?

Danielle Applestone: Changing that reality would require legwork and buy in at every level of the company. For Jerry Foster, the best place to begin, was on the shop floor.

Jerry Foster: And so we would go out on the shop floor, and like I said, we would work side by side with the people on the floor. And the fact that we were out there, and we didn’t have this, where the engineers and the leaders wore suits and ties. And we wore uniforms, the shop floor uniforms, just like they did on the shop floor. So we took away all those barriers. The fact that we were out there in the heat, and the grime, and the grease and the oil, working side by side … I remember coming home just covered in oil. And my wife was like, “I thought you were a programmer. I don’t get this.”

Danielle Applestone: For his team, the road to creating a smart manufacturing platform, was a process of exploration and discovery, driven by equal parts of elbow grease and curiosity.

Jerry Foster: I remember we looked at a CNC machines, it’s a machine that cuts apart. And it’s like, “Hey, that’s got a serial port on it. Well, that must mean it expects some kind of input.” We’d dig up this old manual, had a couple of cryptic paragraphs on its conductivity capabilities, and we’d string this RS-232. I remember stringing RS-232 cables through the ceiling, trying not to fall into these bins of hot molten steel below me, so we could hook up the CNC machine to our central server. And then write a driver and see, so that we can upload recipes into the CNC machine, and the operators wouldn’t have to key those in manually and all the errors that we go along with that.

Danielle Applestone: This drive to centralized data centric manufacturing, would evolve into a new business venture for Jerry. He co-founded Plex, providing company wide access to key data in real time, from the routine to the critical, leading to higher levels of automation.

Darrel Schueneman: That automation allows them to track everything from raw materials to work in progress and analyze the entirety of their business.

Danielle Applestone: Darrel Schueneman is manager of cloud operations at Plex.

Darrel Schueneman:  This visibility into the business helps the leaders work from a single version of truth; allowing them to make better decisions. The Plex Smart Manufacturing platform gives them all that ability. In the age of industry 4.0, the ability to see what’s happening inside the business at any given time and gain control of crucial success factors, such as product quality, will become increasingly important.

Danielle Applestone: From any computer, those authorized to access the cloud based platform, can check the live status of every aspect of the business.

Todd Weeks: So not just themselves working inside of their plant, but their suppliers, their customers, everything that they need, can connect through this one system.

Danielle Applestone: Todd Weeks is group vice president of the platform and cloud operations group at Plex, which provides a smart manufacturing platform for hundreds of companies.

Todd Weeks: And then with that, having a system that’s highly automated, it tracks and analyzes everything that they do on the shop floor, to make them more efficient on the shop floor, and then integrates that up into if they need, all of their top floor applications; HR, any kind of financing, all that kind of stuff. And so we’re an end to end solution for that.

Todd Weeks: It includes things like an MES solution, we’re a full ERP solution, supply chain management and an industrial IOT application for connecting systems back into how things are working on the plant floor.

Danielle Applestone: Transparency and live data are helping transform manufacturing. As that data accumulates, Plex technology lets each customer learn from it. Darrel Schueneman.

Darrel Schueneman: Our customers are now going to be able to learn from their past data points, aggregate that data and better predict events and needs for the future. They’re going to be able to plan their inventories better. They’re going to be able to have traceability and visibility into all their data and all their operations. Many businesses have struggled with that in the past and by leveraging our platform, we help give them that insight into the information that they already had and just may not have been able to form something out of it yet.

Danielle Applestone: As demand grew for accountability, transparency, and efficiency and supply chains, smart manufacturing quickly graduated from want to have, to need to have.

Darrel Schueneman: Many manufacturers will have more than one production plant that they use our smart manufacturing platform in. So one customer could mean many more plants.

Danielle Applestone: For Plex, this wave of success has come with a weight of responsibility. Every day, hundreds of companies and a worldwide army of workers, count on its smart manufacturing platform to orchestrate their businesses and their plant operations.

Darrel Schueneman: If the Plex Smart Manufacturing platform is down, if our services are unavailable, companies around the world just grind to a halt. And with penalties to manufacturers that can skyrocket upwards of $50,000 a minute, the stakes are really high. We have to be available all the time, at whatever the cost.

Danielle Applestone: Jerry Foster is all too aware of the pressure to prevent even the smallest incident of down time.

Jerry Foster: We’re mission critical. So it’s not just they can’t get a report or they might have to delay something, they depend on us for every aspect of their business; making material, moving materials, shipping material, receiving material. And then all of the support around accounting and HR and finances, all those things are running as an integrated inside this facility.

Jerry Foster: So if something goes down, they basically almost shut down. They have to resort back to a manual processes and a pen and paper and those sorts of things, or maybe stand alone or on-premise systems that are running. So they depend on us for the uptime, for the efficiencies, for the fail over, to protect their data. And to be honest, that’s one of the reasons that we’ve done so well with partnering with Dell and the PowerMax equipment, has helped us to deliver that capability that our customers expect.

Danielle Applestone: Plex may be a software as a service cloud platform, but their reputation is also riding on their choice of storage system. A choice Vince Westin takes very seriously. He’s the data storage evangelist at Dell Technologies.

Vince Westin: Well, Plex has a high need for performance and availability, as well as the automation for management. And PowerMax is able to provide all of that easily. You can use the REST API. You can use Ansible, you can use whatever works. So Plex can take all of their tools and automate the most commonly used services. And so it makes them very easy to deliver services to their customers from PowerMax using those tools. They know they can count on it because each array individually is six nines or better availability.

Danielle Applestone: In one sense, invisibility is at the heart of the Plex mission. Their customers count on them to reduce the possibility of disruption to the smallest possible fraction, and every day, find ways to make it even smaller. Darrel Schueneman.

Darrel Schueneman: The value of real time data to our customers and what it allows for them, avoiding any disruption to our customers is critical. Whether it’s using Plex to run operations on the shop floor, or access data to make better decisions. Plex guarantees 99.9% availability. And our actual availability in the last two years, has been 99.99%. That translates to a lot of extra runtime for our customers.

Darrel Schueneman: Dell has helped Plex deliver on the promise of availability, scalability, security, and reliability. We’re now able to perform data restores in fractions of time. We previously had 30 minutes as compared to three to five hours. Using the storage solutions like PowerMax, we’ve reduced our read latency times dramatically. Our data reduction ratios are significantly more than what our initial expectations were. We’re seeing 3:1, the 9:1 and an overall 43:1 efficiency rating, which is absolutely astounding for us. Latencies have dropped by half a millisecond and we’re able to provide a much more responsive and faster SQL server environment. Which all of that translates into a better experience and better performance for our customers.

Danielle Applestone: That same invisibility must also extend to routine procedures, such as code upgrades. Vince Westin.

Vince Westin: We talk about the fact that our code upgrades are practically invisible, right? You come on with a new set of code, we push it into the box, and then we load it to all the directors at once and we’re done. And so, the customers don’t see an impact from code load.

Danielle Applestone: Though smart manufacturing systems are relatively new, the principle that drives them is not. Todd Weeks.

Todd Weeks: So the things that are really valuable to a manufacturer, is anything that can make their business more efficient. They have made a bet on the fact that a SaaS solution will be able to run their key and core manufacturing solutions more efficiently than an internally run IT organization. And we’ve proven year over year, that we have a track record of being able to do that.

Danielle Applestone: And like most data technologies, they are constantly changing and improving. What amazes Vince Westin, is the velocity of that change.

Vince Westin: Every new generation is a leap forward. The beauty of Moore’s Law is that each one feels like it’s a leap, and the individual leaps are kind of understandable because you’re watching them happen one at a time. But when you look back over the history of six, seven, eight generations of product, it like, “Wow, we’ve done a lot.” We’ve fundamentally changed multiple core aspects, because technologies advance, customer needs are changing. Lots of big things are happening in the world, and how are we able to adapt to that? So we keep some of the core principles alive of things like the data resilience and the enhanced integrity checks and the being able to recover from even the craziest failures and never lose a bite.

Danielle Applestone: In many ways, the factory floor of today might appear much like the factory floor of a half century ago. But with some vital exceptions, gone is so much costly miscommunication. The flow of supply, production, shipping, are coordinated in clock like fashion. Machine maintenance is anticipated and scheduled; minimizing disruption.

Danielle Applestone: While at the same time, the company is learning, benefiting from data captured and constantly analyzed. From this, refinements are offered to help make the operation faster, leaner, more efficient and smarter. Today, the wheels of this industry turn on a cloud, a cloud kept aloft in no small part by powerful, reliable data storage.

Danielle Applestone: This is Technology Powers X, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. For more information on Dell EMC PowerMax All Flash Enterprise Data Storage, go to DellTechnologies.com/TechnologyPowersX. You can read the transcript, learn more about our speakers and check out some great links.

Danielle Applestone: I’m Danielle Applestone. Thank you for listening.

About the Author: Evan Morrison

Evan has a passion for using digital mediums to showcase the impact that technology can have across the globe. While working at Dell Technologies, Evan has produced content and web experiences across various lines of business and continues to explore new ways to tell these amazing stories. Evan is a graduate of Syracuse University and currently lives in Burlington, Vermont.