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Mike Richman


Field Report: HxGN LIVE 2018

The framework of the smart factory takes shape

Published: Wednesday, June 27, 2018 - 11:02

Manufacturing is an eternally forward-looking sector. From the First Industrial Revolution about 250 years ago right up until the remarkable advances in connectivity and information analysis that form the heart of Industry 4.0, scientists, engineers, managers, marketers, and quality professionals have joined forces to continually push the outer edges of practicality, reliability, and economic feasibility, all in a quest to create the breakthrough products that markets just can’t live without. Manufacturing is a business of aspiration, and for the last few centuries, business has generally been good.

Today, world-class manufacturers are undergoing an absolute transformation (and that’s not too strong a word) in how they operate, where they make and save their money, why they exist, and what the future holds. Some of these companies are born to change; others have change thrust upon them. But however it emerges, whether additive or subtractive in nature, advanced manufacturing is an industry that increasingly reflects the broader challenges and opportunities found in any and all technical endeavors across the globe.

It’s hard to believe that just a few short decades ago, factories captured and analyzed practically no data at all… and absolutely none in anything approaching real time or with any kind of mobility. The twin interdependencies of manufacturing today involve connected devices and the mountains of data that those devices create. These two elements, the Internet of Things and the advent of Big Data, have already been game-changers for manufacturers. Now, as true machine learning gets added to the mix, those in industry need bigger, better, and more powerful tools to help them operate as efficiently as possible.

An ACE emerges

Last month, I attended HxGN LIVE, a tech-heavy user conference from Hexagon AB, the multinational conglomerate that includes, among other divisions, Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence. The issues I lay out above, which I think about often, are clearly on the minds of Hexagon management as well.

During his opening keynote, Hexagon CEO Ola Rollen talked about the need to not just acquire data, but to do so in an efficient, enhanced, and mobile way. He refers to this as an “autonomous connected ecosystem,” an ACE, for short.

“Tonight,” Rollen said, “we’re going to talk about how to make ACE a reality. Tonight, we’re launching something called Xalt. In the next four or five years, it’s going to be a complete, wraparound technology for all our platforms, systems, and products. We don’t call it a platform because it connects platforms; it’s more like the grid between platforms.”

With Hexagon CEO Ola Rollen

Rollen drilled into the Xalt solution and its applicability to construction, agriculture, mining, infrastructure, and the planning and operation of smart cities. All of these applications will be greatly assisted in the rapid acquisition and analysis of information that Xalt promises to deliver.

It’s in the manufacturing sector, however, that the promise of Xalt-based autonomous operations is already being realized.

“Smart factories are the ultimate autonomous connected ecosystem,” Rollen noted. “We have an installation we’ve done at eight customer sites, so this is already up running today, as we speak.”

He next showed an animation of a CMM working in tandem with a CNC machine. The CMM was reading the output from the CNC, and the one machine could tell the other to, for example, recalibrate itself. This is a powerful kind of autonomous feedback loop in which the machinery is completely integrated and self-correcting, even apart from human interaction.

Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence CEO Norbert Hanke took this point further during his divisional keynote the next day (many thanks to Jeffrey Rowe of MCADCafe for providing an audio recording of this session, which I unfortunately missed).

“Ola told us about the power of combining domain expertise and technology to create autonomous connected ecosystems,” Hanke said. “What does this mean for us as manufacturers? Our domain expertise is in manufacturing intelligence. With technology throughout design and engineering, and production and metrology, we are uniquely positioned in this space. We can enable autonomous connected ecosystems for manufacturers—this is the smart factory. The concept is about improving productivity, and we believe that productivity is driven by quality.”

Clarifying the solution

“What is Xalt?” was the question asked repeatedly, appearing and disappearing now and again, ghostlike, in the keynotes, exhibit hall, and meeting rooms of the conference. Every time I heard it, I thought of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, that alternative-history paean to humanity’s lost and found technological prowess, which summed up a sense of wonderment about the nature of genius: Who, after all, is John Galt? Is he within us all?

I had the opportunity to clarify these questions with Brian Shepard, chief technology officer for Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence’s MSC Software division and also HMI’s senior vice president of software solutions.

The existential question at this year’s HXGN Live was “What is Xalt?”

“Xalt is the framework that’s data-focused for enabling our customers to realize the promise of the digital thread,” Shepherd informed me. “From a factory standpoint, our customers are drowning in data… they have more data than they know what to do with. The challenge is to harness that data, moving it from where it’s created to where it needs to be, in the hands of people or other machines, to use that data to make a decision, improve a process, whatever that data can do for you. Xalt is a set of capabilities. We call it a framework because it’s a broad swath of capabilities that are data focused, to gather that data from the edge, to transform it and connect that data into existing enterprise systems, to visualize that data, to make it mobile, to use machine learning and analytics on that data to gather deeper insights from it, and more.”

I asked him to define computing from “the edge,” a concept I first heard at a HxGN Live last year.

“Edge computing means doing computing, calculations, at the spot where the data is created, rather than transmitting it to the cloud,” he said. “Manufacturers can’t afford to go down if there’s a loss of cloud connectivity. Edge computing is important [to combat] latency, for real-time computing operations and tasks. It’s a deployment architecture or system architecture decision about where work gets done.”

Shepherd also gave me the benefit of his wisdom about the benefit of autonomy in these complex software systems.

“Autonomy is for the specific cases where machines are better than humans in an area that matters to humans, where they want to be taken out of the loop, if possible,” he explained. “If the machine does as good or a better job than the human, let’s do that. That’s the ultimate goal of these smart machines.”

Boring or fun?

One of the great things about HxGN LIVE is the level of access one has to the highest levels of the company. At a luncheon, I asked Rollen if Xalt was the kind of product customers knew that they wanted and had requested, or was it more a case of showing them a need that they may not have even known about?

“If they don’t know that they need it, they should be scared,” he answered. “I think we all need Xalt, and it’s going to be entrenched in everything we do because the world is going to get autonomous. The fundamental question is, where we are heading as humans? I believe we are heading toward a society where you have boring and fun. Boring is buying groceries. But right now, Amazon can scan your fridge and deliver your order. You can look at your own life and say, ‘This is boring. I want to automate that.’ I believe that we are going to spend our time on the fun stuff, and let the machines do the boring stuff. If you want machines to do that, you need Xalt.”

Indeed, the pursuit of “fun,” as Rollen might call it, or “relative ease” as it might also be considered, has been at the heart of every forward-looking manufacturing process since before there even were industrial revolutions. That drive for fun—the desire to avoid drudgery—is a core human response, and it’s also been a driver in the rapidly soaring levels of productivity that define modern manufacturing.

Human beings are the ultimate value-adding asset in any business, most assuredly including manufacturers. Tools like Hexagon’s Xalt harness the power of automation to take the burden of mind-numbing repetitive tasks away from people and deliver it to machines that never get bored, never get tired, and never lose focus. In place of those rote jobs, people can be liberated to have fun, think creativity, and add far more to the organization when they’re on the job. As time goes on, manufacturers will continue to be separated into those that are oppressed by information, and those that are liberated by it. Which will you and your organization be?


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Mike Richman