What an OT support and maintenance contract should include

This is the second in a series of articles about the importance of Support and Maintenance contracts for your manufacturing OT Systems. In the first article, Chris Barlow, Technical Director at manufacturing software specialist Astec IT Solutions explained why it was important to have a Support and Maintenance Contract. He now moves on to discuss the next phase; revealing what that contract should include.

If you were going to undertake any kind of project, whether at home or at work, you’d want to know a few things beforehand. Other than price, you’d probably want to know exactly what service you could expect for your investment. For example, what the service includes, what hours are included, what the Service Level Agreement (SLA) is, what are the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and whether or not there is there a 24/7 helpdesk, etc.

It is always important that these agreements are set out right from the start. We’ve probably all read a horror story about business technology, where large scale system implementations have overrun, or basic deployment standards have not been met. More often than not, these events have happened because of a failure to put an adequate contract in place from the beginning: there have been no SLAs in place and KPIs have not been determined. Therefore, projects run wayward and basic demands are not met.

At Astec, we always make sure these considerations and agreements have been set out at the very start of every project. We offer several flexible support plans which provide expert technical support and ongoing system maintenance. Each of these support plans has clear SLAs, so you know exactly the service you can expect from each of the plans.

From our experience, here is some of the detail you should be looking for when it comes to a support contract:

Service Level

Does your support plan provide an appropriate service window, which meets your requirements? If your operations run 24/7 there is not much point in having a helpdesk which closes at 5pm. Conversely, if you only need support between 08:30 and 17:00, why pay for more?

Response Time

Is it clear how quickly your support provider will respond to a request for assistance? What are the different levels of support included in your contract and what are the response times for each of the levels you have in your contract? A good support provider will always be clear about these, because it is in everyone’s interest.

Inclusive Monthly Hours

What are the minimum and maximum hours included in your support contract? This is important, because if you haven’t got the right level of cover and you move into ad hoc hours, your support bill will be quite expensive. Plus, by having a sufficient level of minimum hours, you can ensure that all your preventative maintenance is taken care of too. Thus, you will have minimised downtime due to unplanned stoppages as a result of OT systems failure.

Support Channels

This can really be where a good provider can make a difference. How do you raise a support case and how convenient and fast is the process Should you use email, web or the telephone? Does your plan include service visits? If so, how many? Is remote access available? What about remote monitoring? Finally, if the worst happened and you suffered a critical systems failure, is there an emergency support button you can hit from anywhere?

As you can see, Support and Maintenance Contracts are not all standardised, so it is important to examine the detail. At Astec, we’ve tried to make this simple for you and will work with you to agree service levels and KPIs upfront to ensure you always receive the service that your business needs.

Visit our website to learn more about our range of flexible support plans which provide expert technical support and ongoing system maintenance.

The importance of support and maintenance agreements for critical manufacturing OT systems

With the advent of Industry 4.0, technology is playing a more prominent role than ever in the modern manufacturing enterprise. The modern production environment relies heavily on technology and digital systems to do everything from ordering raw materials to operating machinery and handling dispatch. But what happens when we take that technology for granted? What happens when it stops working and begins to affect an entire manufacturing facility? Chris Barlow, Technical Director at Astec IT Solutions, explains why OT support and maintenance agreements are so essential and just as important as enterprise IT support and maintenance contracts.

As manufacturers move towards an integrated digital operating environment with ever increasing connectivity between critical IT and OT infrastructure at the centre of this industrial transformation, many plants have undergone a major shift towards embracing digitalisation to help them gain a competitive edge.

Of course, any technology investment requires a considered approach towards in-house maintenance and it is likely that Plant Operators/Managers and Operational staff will find themselves constantly upgrading their skills in order to keep pace with advancing technology. Having an internal team dedicated to keeping systems running can be great, but it can also place considerable strain on business should members of the team move on to new jobs, or take leave for an extended period of absence. Not having the correct technical people available can pose a risk for manufacturing businesses and in the worst circumstances, could even lead to a plant shutdown.

One solution is to have an outside Support and Maintenance contract with a company such as Astec IT Solutions. This will ensure that you always have ongoing technical support to safeguard your operation, regardless of whether you need to urgently resolve production issues, require general maintenance or ad-hoc system changes to satisfy customer demand.

Peace of mind is not the only reason for having a good support and maintenance contract in place. If you don’t have a contract that covers your needs, you could end up paying for expensive and unbudgeted ad-hoc services. Often, the pricing for ad-hoc support and maintenance can mount up above the monthly cost for an all-inclusive service. Furthermore, ad-hoc services are usually outside of any Service Level Agreement (SLA) so you could end up waiting an unacceptable length of time for a resolution.

When you have an effective support and maintenance contract, it is in the support contract provider’s best interest to keep your system working as smoothly as possible. Your provider doesn’t earn any extra money when they have to send an engineer on-site, so a good, support and maintenance provider will be performing a lot of preventative maintenance and pro-active monitoring.

The logical outcome of all the preventative maintenance measures mentioned above, is that your systems should be more reliable. Astec IT Solutions has an excellent continuous remote monitoring option available to report on real-time equipment and system status, enabling us to provide an early warning of any issues that may affect your operation before they cascade and become a major problem, saving you from unplanned downtime and the associated financial losses.

To learn more about our range of flexible support plans which provide expert technical support and ongoing system maintenance click here.

Bridging the communication gap to reach Industry 4.0

The design, development, and manufacture of a new electric vehicle (EV) is a time consuming and costly operation. The vehicle itself needs to be developed on a digital drawing board before a prototype must be designed and go through extensive feasibility testing. Even if you are working at a relatively rapid pace, this process could take months at the least to be completed. The next stage is to develop custom pressing tools before mass production can begin and once you have started up your production line, any tweak to the design or change in hardware can be costly, potentially setting a project back weeks and months.

What if you could undergo this entire process at a much faster speed, reduce traditional development times up to 90% and incur just one tenth of the usual investments in factory and production technology? Sound impossible? The majority of articles you will read around the topic of Industry 4.0 will probably tell you that’s it not. They’ll probably tell you that it can be achieved – but they’ll probably tell you that the manufacturing industry is 10-20 years away from this being a reality – not this article.

For that’s exactly what German e-mobility start-up e.GO has achieved with its unique urban EV which weighs less than 900 kilos and is just three-and-a-half metres long. What makes this project so significant is the use of Industry 4.0 manufacturing methods which enabled agile production with relatively low capital investment.

Bridging the gap

On the face of it, e.GO has the same manufacturing software available to it as any other business and is an avid user of systems for Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), PLM (Product Lifecycle Management), CAD (Computer Aided Design), CAQ (Computer Aided Quality Management) amongst other things. However, too often software, machinery and equipment are operated in isolation, making it a challenge for plant managers to identify any loopholes affecting production. While data may be collected and analysed from disparate systems, rarely if ever is it pooled together to present one holistic view of the production environment, bridging the communication gap that is so far holding up Industry 4.0 progression.

e.Go adopted the Elisa Smart Factory solution to overcome this challenge and streamline the production process. The solution obtains data from various sources, analyses it in real-time and optimises it to identify any potential problems or production bottlenecks. It can then perform predictive maintenance or predictive failure detection. The next step is to use this newly created virtual data lake to create a digital twin of the production environment. The twin can be used to make real-time decisions affecting logistics and process optimisation driven by the Internet of Things (IoT), helping e.GO reach new levels of efficiency and productivity.

Streamlining complex operations

For e.GO, this bridge in device communication is essential to operating a complex production line in the leanest and most effective way possible. The company follows a multi-stage production process which is carried out in discrete steps, with the final end product having significant quality variations.

By creating a digital twin of the factory, the company is able to perform more advanced traceability, connecting process measurement data to individual projects, with Elisa Smart Factory utilising machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to more accurately forecast outcomes and establish the best operational processes for the production line. This enables e.GO to flex and adjust production as it needs, without incurring significant extra costs and extending production times.

For many across manufacturing, true realisation of Industry 4.0 is still considered some time away, with lots of businesses still operating labour-intensive, manual processes to plug the gaps in shopfloor communication. However, as e.GO’s use of Elisa Smart Factory demonstrates, bridging the gap can not only drive efficiencies and production improvement, it can also significantly accelerate time-to-market, even for upcoming challenger brands.

Inspired? To find out more about Elisa Smart Factory and how it can help bridge the communication gap in your factory, send me a message today.

Dashboards, Augmented Reality, Reporting and Field Service for Smart Manufacturing

At the PPMA Show this year, held on 25-27 September at Birmingham’s NEC, Astec Solutions will be speaking to manufacturers about digitally transforming their operations.

The highly successful annual event is organised by the Processing and Packaging Machinery Association, which is currently celebrating 30 years serving UK manufacturers. The 2018 show is expected to be the largest yet, attracting over 8000 visitors from around the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.

Although the inherent nature of the PPMA Show means a focus on production machinery, in recent years the prevalence of digital technology has increased, as its influence on manufacturing heightens. Manufacturing personnel across a variety of functions – C-level Executives, IT, Engineering, Supply Chain, Quality and Production can all capitalise on opportunities brought about by emerging digital technologies.

Technical Director Chris Barlow explains the value of Astec’s Smart Manufacturing Solutions, and where the offering fits within the market:

“The majority of exhibitors at the PPMA Show are machine vendors, as the trade association predominantly exists for machinery manufacturers. Those vendors will generally supply software with their equipment which enables the machine to be controlled. It may also collect important machine data and in some cases, even provide some machine-level analytics. Most of the machines now being developed will have numerous sensors and connectivity built-in, so they have the potential to be incorporated into IoT solutions.

This is where our Smart Manufacturing Solutions come into play. As an analogy, consider the machines as the individual musicians in an orchestra; every member is accomplished at their own specific role but it requires a conductor to ensure the ensemble produces a curtain-raising performance. Connecting machines and orchestrating operations is where Smart Manufacturing can truly transform your operations. Without it, all you have is disparate systems and assets.”

Astec will be promoting a number of recently launched services at the show, which are designed to address common pain points and barriers to digital progression. With clever use of software products from leading vendors such as GE Digital and PTC, the services go beyond the purely operational view of traditional SCADA and utilise predictive analytics, historic insights and augmented reality for preventative maintenance and proactive operations. New services for 2018 include:

Digital Transformation Assessments
Digitisation and Industrial Innovation Platforms
Augmented Reality Solutions
Rapid Response Support Button
Field Services Team

One of the key barriers to adopting ‘smart’ solutions is reported to be cost, with smaller UK manufacturers dismissing the technology as too high an investment, or only for large global corporations. This however, does not need to be the case, as Astec’s focus is working with existing systems and avoiding ‘rip and replace’ overhauls. Now coming into its 19th year, Astec has refined its future-proof solutions so the system infrastructure is crafted to be robust and secure while remaining flexible and extensible. Implementations are carried out with a holistic, IT-centric approach – and the discipline that comes with it. Customers can access fresh functionality and innovative tech while benefiting from fully supportable, off-the-shelf software that extends the value of their original investment.

Astec will be exhibiting on stand C14 in Hall 5 at the NEC in Birmingham 25-27 September. Register to attend the PPMA Show 2018 for FREE >>

How will the workforce benefit from emerging manufacturing technologies?

New technologies are often perceived as too expensive or too demanding to implement for smaller operations. In the UK, even large industry is reported to be lagging behind global competitors in championing digital advancement.

Amid Brexit uncertainty and preparations for a possible ‘no deal’ situation with the EU, manufacturers have now at least, received some guidance from a recently published government white paper on trade continuity expectations. Nevertheless, many remain hesitant to adopt new technology like bunnies in headlights – they know it’s coming (and fast!), but feel paralysed, unable to take action. The good news is however, that it is quite possible to pioneer and embark upon digital transformation, regardless of organisational size or investment budget. It is simply a matter of breaking down the evolution into manageable stages and making best use of the incumbent workforce.

There are multiple opportunities to use data connectivity to benefit a business; examples include improved collaboration, breaking down departmental data silos, obtaining new insights into operational effectiveness, predictive maintenance and worker self-learning.

To leverage rapidly developing digital technologies, manufacturers need a good understanding of how they connect and interact, and how the background skills, interactions and responsibilities of the workforce come into play. To assist with this challenge, Astec now offers a Digital Transformation Assessment service which includes a situational analysis and business case, as well as outlining achievable ‘next steps’ on the journey. As manufacturers improve data connectivity and capabilities across their operations and supply chain, they are able to solve problems at existing pain points in the short term, while starting to address broader transformation changes.

Astec Technical Director Chris Barlow says,

“Our new Digital Transformation Assessments are an opportunity to take stock of the current position of the business, progress already made, areas to improve and identify unexplored areas of potential. Astec have been producing reports to help clients improve their systems for years, and have built up considerable experience in the manufacturing space, so we are looking to meet the current demand for digital transformation roadmaps. Through our partnerships with PTC and GE Digital we can deliver fully-supportable, off-the-shelf, IT-centric solutions with clear, incremental steps towards incorporating new technologies such as AR and machine learning.”

For the workforce, it doesn’t have to mean re-inventing the wheel, but continuous learning is an increasingly critical part of the digital future. Existing knowledge from experienced workers on the factory floor can and should be retained. Modern, intuitive interfaces and dashboards, workflows and AR enhance workers’ current skill set, building on the more traditional skills. Improved data capture, reporting and process management protect the wisdom that has taken years to accumulate, while encouraging career progression and employee retention.

Remote working and real-time data can transform traditional ‘hands-on’ roles, delivering a level of convenience that can help retain valuable older employees and attract the best new recruits. As personnel are able to apply their existing skills while being trained in using specialist digital tools, overall efficiency will also improve. All employees, regardless of department – Production, Engineering, Quality, IT or C-level Executives, can benefit from new capabilities as a result of digital change.

Read more on Astec’s Digital Transformation Assessment.