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An IT Story: From Supporting Role to Business Partner

An IoT project in a manufacturing plant helped to change the role of the IT group at French auto supplier Faurecia.

A visitor to Foxconn’s planned $10 billion Wisconsin plant likely will be seeing the future. It will have lots of robots, no trace of paper, large data display screens, and not so many people. It’s what analysts imagine. This factory is likely to be a way point to the Apple supplier’s goal of total automation.

But for most manufacturers, efficiency gains mean retrofitting existing equipment. That’s what Faurecia, a Nanterre, France-based major automotive supplier had to do.

Faurecia connected its plant floor systems at its Brazilian manufacturing facility. It made data accessible via dashboards and available for analytics in a cloud. This effort had two major outcomes:

  • The auto parts maker improved the control and insight of its manufacturing processes and supply chain.
  • It  changed how the business thought about IT.

Faurecia’s IT department was once seen as a service provider or “just support." Today it “is seen in our hierarchy as a business partner,” said Maicon Oliveira, who is in charge of the development of Faurecia’s manufacturing execution system. “It’s a vital partnership today for the company,” he said.

Image: Pixabay/geralt
Image: Pixabay/geralt

As data connects so do internal operations. This “digital transformation” brought together with the operational technology (OT) and IT staffs, Oliveira said. OT covers the technology that controls physical devices and processes.

“It’s not even IT. It’s not even operations anymore. It’s something that they (the business) understand as a brand new department,” said Oliveira. 

The linking of OT and IT staffs is an emerging trend, said Kimberly Knickle, a research vice president at IDC. “Anything that can be connected will eventually be connected,” she said. That means people as well as systems.

Faurecia deployed Kepware’s IoT Gateway to connect its manufacturing systems. Kepware was acquired last year by PTC, an IoT development firm. This gateway has hundreds of different drivers that allow it to communicate with the programmable logic controllers in plant floor machines made by a variety of manufacturers.

With this data, Faurecia now has a complete view of its manufacturing processes in that Brazilian factory. This allows it to run ongoing analysis on its processes and look for ways to improve its products, supply chain and the overall efficiency of its plant operations.

They can use the data to ensure that a part has the right torque or weld and meets all the customer specifications. This process-improvement effort includes predictive maintenance to avoid downtime.

It’s become a “big data initiative,” said Oliveira, who said data from its plants is now being centralized in a cloud environment. This rich data and the insights from it has raised the importance of IT.  They want to produce faster and avoid production process failures, he said. “That’s where we want to go in the future,” he said.

That future, said Terry Gou, founder and chairman of Foxconn Technology Group, will be “totally automated factories,” which is what he told the state-run China Daily in July. But he said there’s still a need for improvements to robots and data analysis.

Plant floors have long had sensors on equipment but “but they were not connected at all -- just a gauge on the side of a big vat,” said Bill McBeath, chief research officer of ChainLink Research. This data was, at best, collected locally and available on a dashboard. “Now what we’re talking about is a more global connection,” he said.

IoT technologies are “more advanced and no longer cost prohibitive,” said Brian Higgins, a management consulting partner at KPMG.

Higgins couldn’t speak about Foxconn’s planned Wisconsin plant, but noted manufacturers are considering moving some facilities back to the US, and “they can’t do that unless there’s a lot of automation.”

Patrick Thibodeau is a reporter covering enterprise technologies, including supercomputing, workplace trends and globalization. His work on outsourcing and H-1B visa issues has been widely cited, read on the floor of the U.S Senate, and has received national awards for ... View Full Bio

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