Accelerate Towards Industry 4.0

(Original publication in Spanish here)

In 2016, Softtek announced its global strategic initiative focused on digital industrial solutions that enable significant operational improvements. A year later, Softtek blauLabs joined to complement this offer and expand its reach.

Although the most widespread uses have to do with energy efficiency, we interviewed José Ramón Calvo, Head of IIoT initiative in Softtek EMEA, to amplify the concept and expand the potential it offers.                                                                                                                                    

What is Softtek blauLabs?

I will start by highlighting some misconceptions. First, it’s not a software or a packaged product... nor is it intended to replace implementation of SCADA (Supervision, Control and Data Acquisition) or MES (Manufacturing Execution System). Furthermore, it is not an EMS (Energy Management System) product.

Now that we know what it isn’t, we can define what it is. Softtek blauLabs is a solution that enables Digital Transformation towards Industry 4.0, accelerating the delivery of results. In this way, blauLabs constitutes a unique and global solution for the digitalization of processes and data integration that is scalable both technically and functionally, complete with a balanced and predictable TCO (Total Cost of Ownership).

Technically speaking, the solution is the result of integrating the management and orchestration of elements that form the IoT ecosystem. At heart, it embodies services and engines that simply and efficiently allow the acquisition, storage, processing and real-time analytics of any type of data and signal. In this way, the needs of any industry can be met, including agriculture, oil, health, financial services, mass consumption, industrial and logistics, among others.

To summarize, it’s all about converting data into valuable information both for the operation and for the management of the organization.

What’s its scope?

Any circumstance or real-world parameter that can be converted into a numerical variant value over time in a periodized manner is likely to be stored in Softtek blauLabs as a numerical series.

As an example, we were summoned by a cement company. There were quantity differences between the cement they loaded and that which was unloaded at the destination. As they contemplated the difference, the discharge was always less, resulting in a suspicion that it was stolen. The problem was that they had no information to prove it. The only way to find out was to put a camera in each truck, and of course, people to observe those cameras full-time. Due to the number of trucks they had to monitor, this was not feasible at a cost level. 

The first step for us was to know what information could be released automatically, without the need to mediate people. This revealed a fundamental fact for planning the solution: the trucks’ concrete mixers rotate in one direction when driving, and the opposite direction when they unload. With that in mind, we knew to only record when it turned in the opposite direction, cross checking that with the GPS and the work order. The information problem was solved, and it was then up to the business to verify their criteria and decide what to do with it.

What is the service model of the solution?

The blauLab offer is comprehensive; it combines the knowledge of IT technology and industry best practices, along with Softtek’s experience in similar cases, so that the addition of relevant business data by the customer (since nobody knows their business better than they do) generates an end-to-end solution based on the operation.

A differentiating factor of blauLabs is that Softtek is technology agnostic; we think of the best solution for the customer rather than having a conditioning specific HW or SW. The HW industry has developed similar solutions that are offered around HW’s own products. Conversely, blauLabs operates on any type of HW, provided that the HW is capable of issuing information in an understandable way (using some documented protocol).

The service is contracted through a license subscription that covers the use of the license and level 3 maintenance on the platform (eliminating CAPEX). For work related to configuration and support levels 1 and 2, it is managed through a service according to the specific needs of the client.

It’s important to mention, regarding investment, that we must be very aware of the impact of returns provided by performance efficiency improvements. Even a 1% cost reduction or reuse of resources is an improvement in performance that directly affects profit and loss accounts, which is indeed significant representing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.

With blauLabs, Softtek helps clients define the informational solution that allows them to analyze how to achieve those efficiencies.

What use cases could we consider?

If we consider a production plant, hospital, airport, etc., we may think of facilities management (consumption and consumables, environmental issues, HVACS, device monitoring, etc.), device performance management (status monitoring through “digital twin,” use management, individual KPIs, etc.), fleet and vehicle management (monitoring conditions of use, location management) and management of use of physical spaces (use monitoring, heat maps, traceability and alerts).

For the oil & gas industry, we could monitor and manage the KPIs of wells or oil field operations around the world that serve to make global business decisions (maintenance planning, performance management, etc.).

In the case of services, one could, for example, measure the use or consumption of a car for insurance premium quotes, or also to detect if a vehicle was left in the corresponding area.

What is the greatest challenge presented by a project of this type?

The biggest challenge has to do with flexibility. We must be flexible to make an efficient physical reality setup based on the heterogeneous nature of the real world. New machines with their own PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) and a multitude of sensors and self-diagnostic processes often coexist with fully functional 50-year old machines that are completely analog and contain no sensors. Being flexible in this case would involve adding sensors to the old machinery.  

The complexity then has to do with planning a solution that obtains information in complex environments and helping define where data extraction is useful for business objectives.

The other challenge has to do with people; no technology can be successful if those who use it don’t perceive an advantage in their day-to-day. Industry 4.0 must offer a sense of fulfillment, provide experience and know-how, and help sustain the decision-making they do constantly through providing documented evidence and supporting repetitive activities that don’t add value.

Who is first on the list to adopt this solution in 2020?

The easy answer would be Logistics and CPG, as they are the industries that could be most impacted by the changes proposed by Industry 4.0, and the ones that have taken more steps in this regard, given the increase in speed and efficiency of processes that both industries are irremediably facing.

Nevertheless, all companies that have started an innovation process should put this on the agenda—primarily those which have been affected in parts rather than the whole company—as each of the processes are executed individually. That is, companies who haven’t fully analyzed how to increase efficiencies in a value chain would even now be ready for the next level.