Tony Mannion looks at the pressures faced by manufacturing businesses and the tell tale signs that they’ve outgrown their infrastructures

Making the jump from SME to a larger enterprise is exciting, but not without its challenges. Having the right software and technology in place is essential to growing a business, yet many companies – particularly manufacturers – are being constrained by out-dated process and applications. So how can decision makers identify when their IT systems have reached the tipping point?

Following the recent financial downturn and subsequent on-going recovery, it is now essential for manufacturers to ensure they maximise their assets and applications to achieve their business goals. As IT has become an increasingly vital service to manufacturers, so too has the requirement for systems not to fail and for performance to remain consistent.

In order to stay ahead of the curve, UK manufacturers must utilise the latest innovations in technology. This becomes increasingly important when you consider a recent Government Department for Science report, which highlighted the UK manufacturing industry as one of the sectors that will undergo drastic change in the coming years, as the impact of the Internet of Things becomes more widespread.

The Internet of Things is just one of a host of new approaches that will allow manufacturers across the country to gather smarter, ‘real-time’ analytics meaning they can see how and why their factories are performing. However, before manufacturers are in a position to adopt and adapt, they must take a close look at the quality of the IT systems they are currently running.

There are many pressure points that manufacturers need to be aware of when it comes to the performance and strength of their IT systems. Ageing assets and legacy replacement are among the costliest hurdles, often requiring replacement to avoid unexpected and unnecessary downtime. Increased competition requires systems, which give manufacturers the edge and ability to operate faster and increase productivity. With cyber threats increasing across the globe, security and resilience is now, more than ever, a key aspect of IT systems.

Identifying these potential issues before they turn into more serious problems is vitally important and there are a number of tell tale signs that can help manufacturers spot the first signs of an outgrown IT system. For instance, if the cost of maintenance and continued usage of the system become prohibitive, it is time to look at a replacement structure. Similarly, as businesses grow, so too does the amount of data that is generated. If systems are not set up to support this growth then manufacturers could be basing key decision making on false, incomplete or inaccurate data. Accurate data is essential to achieve operational intelligence and drive efficiency.

IT and automation systems are a major investment for businesses, no matter what their size. Long-term protection of that investment should be a significant consideration when selecting a partner and a system. Flexibility and scalability on all levels is essential to realising the true value and longevity of a SCADA system. It is extremely important to be able to evolve and tailor solutions over time, expand them into previously unforeseen areas, and integrate them with other systems as technology evolves.

The inability of systems to adapt is a further indication that it is time to reassess IT provisions. This can be identified by businesses spending vast amounts of time and money integrating data from different sources and equally large resources used on system maintenance. The most damaging result of inflexibility can be as the company is growing and expanding into new markets or launching new ranges, the infrastructure and system it is based on is limiting and therefore holding it back. Today’s manufacturers need to offer their customers flexibility. Whilst some may want a standard product, others will require variations bespoke to certain markets. Older systems often prevent manufacturers responding flexibly to these requests, leading to lost revenue opportunities.

As a company grows, so does its geographical spread. Opening international offices or production sites will only add to the pressure placed on existing systems. These offices, or sites, need to be able to communicate seamlessly. They will all be producing their own data, but to ensure the overall business is operating efficiently, engineers and operatives need access to all the information being produced. If the correct system is in place then data silos are created where potentially valuable data that could drive business decisions is simply wasted.

Often the most costly indicator that a manufacturer has outgrown its IT systems is when it becomes over reliant on manual processes – processes that, in an ideal scenario, the system could take on itself. IT is supposed to drive efficiency by making automation processes easy to implement and increase output standardisation. However, if the system is not performing, existing workloads will be added to through the necessity to manually check systems and correct any issues.

This said, few companies are able to afford a complete overhaul of their IT systems and infrastructure, so the key to delivering much needed improvement is by managing the existing legacy systems. This can be achieved by carefully protecting and preserving IT investments to ensure that they remain operational and perform to a high standard for as long as possible.

Legacy systems can also be migrated onto new manageable, scalable technology. Legacy IT system migration is the process of transferring data or programs from one computer system, software application or website to another. This may involve physical system migration, when old hardware is no longer capable of meeting the needs of the system or if it has been damaged. It may also take the form of software or data based migration, where files, data, users and many other settings are transferred between systems.

Ensuring that the right knowledge and experience exists within organisations can guarantee that IT systems are maximised to work efficiently, delivering the support and services required. However, this does not have to mean employing an entire new workforce of IT specialists. In truth, the skills gap within the IT sector means that more companies are turning to managed services to support their IT systems. This means that a third party can be used to manage and monitor IT systems, allowing manufacturers to benefit from their expertise and knowledge, whilst providing the peace-of-mind that systems are operating as expected and risk and downtime are reduced.

Ensuring that factories are secure from cyber threats, operating efficiently and producing to a high quality should be high on any manufacturers list of priorities. What links these separate issues is that they can all be improved by ensuring that IT systems are fit for purpose. Importantly, it is now time for manufacturers to review their plant floor infrastructure and what options are available to them. It comes down to a simple choice – preserve and protect or modernise.

Tony Mannion
Tony Mannion is Business Unit Leader Industrial IT from SolutionsPT. SolutionsPT provides industrial IT solutions for manufacturing companies and infrastructure projects. Based in Greater Manchester, the company has more than 70 employees and 25 plus years’ experience.