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.

Using OEE to drive improvements in operational performance

Back in the 1990’s, the discipline of lean techniques helped to lay the foundations of manufacturers’ digital transformation, although they didn’t know it yet. Then came the buzz about OEE, lean production and six sigma, which gave rise to a surge in solution implementations focused on improving overall equipment effectiveness.

For the companies that invested in this way of working, constantly developing and adjusting lean methodology has become second nature; OEE is an integral part of their commitment to continuous improvement. Relatively small percentage savings in availability, performance and quality quickly accumulate, boosting profitability and market share.

Despite this, the well-known productivity metric is still greatly under-utilised in manufacturing today. This view is consistent with a recent report by McKinsey, which reveals most companies today merely scratch the surface of potential applications for the data: on a modern oil-production platform, for example, only 1 percent of the data generated by the 30,000 sensors is ever examined.

One of the common reasons for untapped digital opportunities often lies with ineffective change management. OEE expert and Astec Managing Director Andy Tripp explains;

“It would be reasonable to assume that global organisations would take the lead in strategic and cultural evolution, but it is not unusual to find local sites completely detached from global head office initiatives. Even when a Business Change Manager is employed, this alone isn’t sufficient to galvanise mid-level management into action. Many UK manufacturing sites are either half-heartedly adopting new advanced analytics programs or even worse, ignoring them and missing the opportunity in its entirety.”

To help alleviate change inertia, Astec offers guidance through the process of maturing pilot projects to an organisation-wide approach – the embodiment of the ‘think big, start small, scale fast’ mantra.

“We specialise in cross-functional integration across departments and organisational functions. Our holistic approach takes into account factors from across the enterprise. Large data sets can be combined and visualised so customers can assess the true business impact of process and equipment losses from issues such as unplanned downtime and faulty equipment.”

For larger industrials in particular, the current disruptive climate can certainly present challenges. A recent study from PwC research arm Strategy& found 66% of manufacturing leaders do not have a clear smart factory vision and strategy, and only 25% believe their employees have suitable qualifications to master a digital future.

Beyond the traditional focus on maximising efficiency, the next step in performance improvement will require companies to establish an IT-centric, robust technical infrastructure. One possible route to achieve this is to outsource implementation, training and support. This approach has the benefit of bringing immediate value while simultaneously extending the skill sets of existing employees. With the correct capabilities, infrastructure and management – including benchmarking and new ways of monitoring progress, industrial manufacturers can remain confident in a rapidly changing climate.

About Astec

Astec implements innovative software solutions to deliver a competitive advantage for clients. Using the latest technology from globally respected partners, invaluable operational insight can be extracted for increased capacity, improved quality and reduced operating costs.

Serving industries such as Food & Beverage, CPG, pharmaceutical and utilities, Astec provide a range of real-time, data driven solutions and support services to help many of the world’s leading companies to improve their operations and help strengthen their market position.

Software review: new iFIX v5.9 SCADA release

GE Digital has now launched their fourth generation SCADA/HMI product iFIX v5.9, which promises to enable smart operators to increase efficiency and reduce costs.

The intuitive interface is designed for operators to quickly interpret relevant data and take the appropriate action. This is in contrast to older systems, which typically display vast reams of data, hampering decision making.

Key new features include:
• A completely refreshed workspace with improved picture quality
• Time lapse playback added to Global Time Control for historical data
• High performance Dynamos for Efficient HMI Office 2016 themes and updated ribbon bars
• A context-rich HMI is based on the model structure so information can be easily located
• The native Web HMI facilitates control via mobile devices
• HTML5 object library for a more efficient HMI and HTML5 content generation from the workspace
• Encrypted communication from Web client using SSL / digital certificate is IT security friendly and cloud ready

The asset model available with iFIX v5.9 really sets this version apart from previous SCADA products. Although monitoring, visualisation and alarms continue to be an important part of SCADA, the additional context provided by a detailed asset model can give operators the edge to optimise processes and drive even better results.

Astec Technical Director Chris Barlow comments,

“We use a standards-based user interface approach for every project, so clients can benefit from improved navigation and decision making. Some operators may have a tendency to feel ‘comfortable’ with older style graphics, where everything is squeezed onto a single screen, but we would recommend the drill-down structure of the latest iFIX, which offers a far superior performance. The essence of iFIX v5.9 centres around the asset modelling. This provides plant-level context for improved diagnosis of abnormal situations. Operators are able to take immediate action on the move, with a consistent level of response every time. The asset-centric screens guide users towards only relevant information – which really is the future of SCADA.”

About Astec

Astec are the sole Premier Solution Partner (PSP) in the UK for GE Digital. Both traditional implementations and support services are provided to clients ranging from SMEs to blue chip multinationals. With over 17 years’ experience in delivering automation and production software solutions, Astec’s capabilities, deep technical knowledge and expertise continue to set the company apart from peers. Each team member is a Microsoft Certified Professional with a true software engineering background, and best in class COTS software is used so customers can make the most out of their software investment.

Read more about Astec’s affiliation with GE Digital or visit the GE Digital Alliance Partner news article page. The iFIX v5.9 datasheet download can be found in Manufacturing Resources.

Astec recommends multi-faceted approach to mitigate risk of ransomware attacks

On 12th May 2017 the WannaCry ransomware affected over 200,000 victims and infected more than 300,000 computers worldwide.

Among the victims were the NHS, who were forced to run some services on an emergency-only basis during the attack. A second major attack struck several large organisations again last month, using ‘Petya’ type ransomware. Both attacks involved self-duplicating network worms, which rapidly spread using the EternalBlue vulnerability in Microsoft Windows. The cyber-attacks spread across the world, crippling hundreds of businesses from shipping companies to advertising firms.

The hacks can cause major disruption to global infrastructure, and while the threat of repeat attacks looms, the real issue is how to avoid falling victim to them in the future. IT and Engineering departments who have been paying lip service to cybersecurity risk mitigation are waking up to a priority re-think.

Blame game

Part of the blame for the WannaCry attack was apportioned to the US intelligence agencies CIA and NSA, who were accused of stockpiling the software code for their own use, instead of reporting the issues to Microsoft. Others find the affected companies at fault for not updating their unsupported systems – or for not installing the patches supplied by Microsoft as they were released.

It was revealed the new state of the art £3.5 billion HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier is running on Windows XP, and Britain’s nuclear submarines are also still believed to run on XP. XP is still more widely used than Windows 8.1 (released in 2013) or any version of Apple’s Mac OSX or the open-source Linux OS. Although Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 or older systems are most at risk, many victims of the WannaCry attack were running on Windows 7, and the recent attack on the Ukraine is believed to have been seeded through a software update mechanism built into an accounting program.

Some researchers claim the recent spate of cyberattacks (which uses malware structured differently to the original ‘Petya’ code) are merely masquerading as ransomware, as the hackers put little effort into designing an effective payment system. This raises questions over possible motives for purely malicious and destructive attacks, which could be political rather than money-orientated.

The advice

For end users of Automation Systems however, the who and whys are largely irrelevant. Astec Technical Director Chris Barlow comments,

There will always be someone looking to spoil someone else’s party for money, vanity or more sinister motivations. I have witnessed numerous people in the IT and Engineering domain squabbling over who knows the most, and who has the best advice. Better to rise above it and simply do all you can to reduce the ever-present risks presented by cyber security.

Remediation activity can start with the following steps:

  • Ensure all operating systems are currently supported by the vendor
    Develop an obsolescence plan for any systems running on Operating Systems older than Windows 7 or Server 2008. Then plan ahead for the phasing out of support for Windows 7 and 2008. Windows NT, 2000, XP or 2003 are not acceptable platforms on which to run your business.
  • Check you have the right patching regime to ensure supported systems are up to date
    Typically, users of Automation Systems avoid patching of real-time systems so as not to threaten production. However this is unnecessary, as any risks associated with patching can be easily mitigated by the implementation of test systems and/or redundant architectures.
  • Check your network is as secure as it can be
    Although it is wise to only have ‘open doors’ for the communication methods employed by active systems, securing your network is not about isolating the system from other internal networks – or even from the internet. A well-managed and protected connection to the internet can actually be what saves a site from a cyber threat. It can be used to obtain operating system or antivirus updates, as well as issuing email or SMS alerts to warn of impending production system component failure.
  • Isolation is no guarantee of protection
    Isolation of systems should never be reason for complacency, as many issues arise from local engineering laptops or operators using USB ports to charge phones. Air gaps do not provide inherent protection, despite being given as a popular reason as to why a system does not require updating or patching.
  • Use Anti-Virus software
    Engineering departments continue to be wary of implementing antivirus software within Automation systems, but this does not need to be the case. All antivirus engines can be configured to enable systems to function correctly.
  • Back it up
    Finally, as a fail-safe contingency, a well-managed and monitored backup strategy will enable the system to be rebuilt and restored if all goes wrong.
  • Understand the risks, have a plan and start to implement it!

About Astec

Astec Solutions has been delivering automation and production software solutions into Manufacturing, Utilities and Broadcast sectors for over 17 years. Core capabilities are focused on the provision of Manufacturing Execution Systems, Batch Execution and true Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA). The Astec team is passionate about exceeding expectations, combining deep technical knowledge with extensive marketing experience to work with customers throughout their improvement journey.

For further information on how Astec can assist with building your cyber security strategy please contact +44 1543 888134 or email

SCADA Vendor Selection: Innovation over Imitation

In this day and age, is it even possible to select the wrong SCADA vendor?

Back in the 1990s, part of a greenfield control system architecture proposal would include a detailed SCADA vendor selection process. This process would focus on variables such as the features and benefits list, cost, ease of use and speed of development. Those days are long since over, since there is no doubt almost every SCADA product on the market is capable of providing a comprehensive solution at a reasonable price. This has been great news for the customer, who is free to use the product they are familiar with and a preferred vendor they feel they can trust. Most products can be configured in any graphical style, provide wide connectivity, and usually all of the more complex features such as distributed architecture support, detailed historical trending and remote alarm alert services. With product differentiation becoming a difficult part of the purchasing process, and largely pointless, many end users have opted to stay with the same SCADA product for the last decade or so. But they may have been getting a little too comfortable.

Whilst Astec is vendor agonistic, the business continues to be closely aligned with GE Digital. Astec founder and MD, Andy Tripp asserts the motivation behind the alignment is for good reason. GE’s SCADA products, iFIX and CIMPLICITY, form part of a much wider software product portfolio which has benefited from a staggering level of investment. In the last few years, GE has ploughed billions of dollars into development to ensure its software products have strong future road maps. This has ensured their products remain relevant for tomorrow’s Industrial Internet as much as today’s Automation and Control solutions. Astec is confident that GE’s software stack can provide customers with the best possible future extensibility of their system, as well as maximising return and keeping total cost of ownership low.

GE’s drive to improve their own manufacturing facilities (with locations in more than 170 countries across sectors such as healthcare, transportation and power) re-focused their commitment to automation and control software and the Industrial Internet. This was cemented by the creation of GE Digital in recent years, following CEO Jeffrey Immelt’s vision to re-invent GE as a ‘digital industrial’ organisation.

For SCADA solutions, the task for today’s end user is to challenge potential integrators around their experience and methodologies on key subjects such as security, compliance, standards, support and future system extension. Andy comments,

“You can have the best product in the world and still deliver it poorly. The outcome of a below-par delivery can stay with a manufacturing facility for decades, harming its competitive position in the market.”

As the sole Premier Solution Partner for GE Digital in the UK, Astec boasts an unrivalled depth of knowledge in the GE product family, which allows them to provide product-based solutions with the least amount of engineered customisation. This is one of the tell-signs Andy advises looking out for when sourcing a suitable integrator,

“End users need to determine if the system integrator can get the most out of the chosen product, or if they have a natural inclination to engineer their way out of trouble with custom code and custom solutions. If it’s the latter, the likelihood of the system being less supportable and extendable significantly increases. It’s also essential the integrator has sufficient knowledge and experience to work with the end user’s IT departments to ensure supportability, maximum security and resilience. The implications of the IT world must be fully understood, so systems can work in harmony with the existing architecture, and not against. These factors also will begin to directly affect the pace that customers can adopt and leverage cloud-based technology.”

For those end users who may already have a poorly configured or poorly performing system, a ‘RAG’ (red amber green) survey can be carried out to determine its effectiveness, and highlight any areas requiring improvement and updates.

Over the last few years, Astec have been working with GE to push forward the latest user interface standards to enhance the user experience. In addition to impacting traditional SCADA, this enables cloud technologies of the Industrial Internet to become a seamless extension of existing systems.

Astec are able to use the new interface to exploit the world of analytics and artificial intelligence within a manufacturing environment. Predictive algorithms can inform users of impending failure of process hardware and production tolerances, with dynamic workflow and decision support preventing basic mistakes and downtime. KPIs and large volumes of production system data from an individual site can be elevated to display user-centric, actionable insights using Predix, GE’s platform for the Industrial Internet. Astec recently joined GE Digital’s ecosystem of Alliance Partners to develop new applications for Predix, with 50% of business expected to come from cloud-based solutions within the next 5 years.