Shop Floor Connectivity | Scale

Connectivity, value, scale: The modern shop floor

Words by Alex Matheson
Connectivity, value, scale: The modern shop floor

Our Top 5 Takeaways

  • Simple devices at scale can have a big impact on your business
  • Don’t be afraid of the cloud and edge computing, it can work in harmony with your SCADA system to create powerful, scalable solutions to your shop floor data needs
  • Is a machine connection really necessary? For example, does a machine alarm really relate to equipment downtime?
  • Complex problems can be solved using AI Bots, but extrapolating this data might take time
  • Connecting to PLC controllers can be valuable, but it is complex and can slow, or even stop, progress

The first industrial revolution used steam to increase productivity. The second introduced electricity to the mix. The third brought IT systems into the fold. Now that we’re well into the fourth, what has been the single biggest introduction? It’s debatable, but you wouldn’t be far wrong if you said ‘connectivity’.

The last two decades especially have seen rapid advances in network technologies. What these advances allow is the true implementation of the internet of things (IoT) and the industrial internet of things (IIoT).

Devices can talk to each other. Devices can talk to unified digital platforms. And unified digital platforms can talk to globally reaching cloud infrastructures. With 5G networking and WiFi 6/7 enabling larger packets of data to be shared faster, this is all happening in near-real time.

For global manufacturing leaders, 5G might still fall short of their requirements. But, bolstering these cyber-physical systems (CPS) with edge computing should pave the way for real industry 4.0 maturity. Edge computing can give you the power of the cloud, onsite.

What does this mean for connectivity? A whole lot actually. Each site you control can be packed full of equipment that works in harmony, interconnected and automated. These sites can use edge computing to make full use of the cloud. And the cloud can touch production centres globally.

Every company’s data value chain starts with collection and moves to impact. Our equipment, the way we work, our output and eventual success, all creates mountains of data. How we make use of that data separates the success stories from the rest of the pack.

Shop floor connectivity, linking the things that do in your organisation to digital platforms capable of crunching massive amounts of data, empowers businesses to make data led decisions. With the right systems, your data value chain can be enhanced; from identifying and collecting massive amounts of data, to analysis and enhancement of that data, through to its use, transformation, and reuse.

Connectivity is no longer about linking one machine to another with a cable, but about linking complex engineering masterpieces throughout the globe to central data hubs.

In our last series of articles, we looked at a fictional baker and how digital threads and supply chain management systems could help them grow into a global powerhouse. We’ll be revisiting our baker throughout these articles, seeing how shop floor connectivity considerations can help their worldwide bread creation and delivery empire; GloboBake.

Why is scalability so important in shop floor connectivity systems?

Simply put, without scalability shop floor connectivity systems are hamstrung. IIoT systems are built with efficiency in mind and that’s what they bring to manufacturing centres. Operations become automated, output increases, and financial rewards are reaped.

Shop floor connectivity also means your production systems can be linked to your delivery systems. That means the machines that make the things you sell, can talk to the people who sell the things they make. Production becomes based on the demand of your customer base, eliminating waste.

With this level of efficiency and sustainability, growth is inevitable and scalability is essential.

How does complexity factor into shop floor connectivity?

Shop floor connectivity projects can be anywhere on a scale between simple to complex. Down in the simple corner of things, you’ve got potentially massive amounts of simple systems and equipment that can be connected to digital platforms with ease, at scale. This is where scalable adoptions of industry 4.0 tech can happen at pace.

These simple pieces of data can drive grand business improvement initiatives such as right first time programs, OEE initiatives, and energy saving drives. Simple data doesn’t mean low impact, in fact, at scale and pace the impact can be far greater than the impact complex data has on our business.

On the other side of that scale is the complex. Bespoke equipment with unique applications and numerous moving parts. These aren’t excluded from the conversation at all, but they do require a slower, more methodical approach when it comes to connectivity ventures.

Our fictional baking enterprise, GloboBake, has a range of shop floor connectivity challenges. Their main production facilities have a multitude of traditional equipment types, from dough kneading machines to ovens. Each one is made up of innumerable moving parts, sensors and other important bits.

None of these are complex, in themselves, but the volume they represent makes them near impossible to manage individually. Shop floor connectivity here has clear benefits. Creating a unified approach to these disparate systems opens the door to so many things for GloboBake.

Automating production and quality control means less energy used overall and easier maintenance of machines that monitor their own condition. Repeatable processes in the baking production lines can be created and rolled out in facilities from London to Lisbon. Money is saved, production can happen in a more sustainable way, and GloboBake continues to be the world leader in bread.

But what about the more complex end of things? With all their success, GloboBake has had the opportunity to invest in innovation. As part of a number of exciting research projects, GloboBake have produced a whole new gluten free bread that has exciting health benefits and tastes incredible.

The complex and unstructured data these sorts of projects create can be used by specific AI bots to monitor the data in real time at the edge. On top of that, they can make predictions about the quality of the bread being used, feeding that data back into the processes involved in creating bread as it’s baked.

The drawback is, they can only produce it using equipment of their own design. This equipment is more complex, and unique to their enterprise. Unlike the less complex and easily scalable elements of their traditional production and output, this needs time and care to be connected up to the central digital platform they use.

Obviously this is less scalable, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t benefit from the same digital platform that handles their mass production. With the right system, they can create a digital profile of their unique equipment that can be rolled out across the globe, easily duplicating a tangle of bespoke processes without fuss.

What must companies remember when planning for scalable shop floor connectivity?

Companies need to understand what they’re connecting to, how complicated that thing is, and what value it will bring to the business. As with every other aspect of business development, it’s about cost vs reward and potential returns on investment.

As we’ve already discussed, connecting simple components to digital systems is not only straight forward, relatively speaking, but it’s ultimately scalable. The more complex and unique the device is, the harder it’s going to be to rollout connectivity at scale.

That’s not to say that this end of the spectrum isn’t worth pursuing, just that the extra time taken and resources needed are worth taking into consideration.

The challenges faced in planning for connectivity at scale are probably as varied as the potential rewards. It depends on the industry, the company, and the people involved what the particular challenges are going to be. That being said, we would suggest taking into account these three things as priorities.


Any digital system you adopt needs to work now, but also needs to be able to adapt in the future to work well with new systems, equipment, or methodologies that your business adopts.

In the fourth industrial revolution, enterprises have access to resources that make these ventures infinitely more viable. Common data models (CDM), standardised logical infrastructure for applications, take much of the heavy lifting off developments in digital projects.

With the support of things like CDMs, shop floor connectivity projects can achieve more by having standardised frameworks at their core, from which either scalable and simple solutions can be built. Or, complex and unique ideas can find common ground with each other.

Business Value

A ‘Marginal Gain’ when scaled across a global network can make a massive impact. Equally, a massive success in a corner of a corner of your business might mean nothing when compared to the bigger picture.

What’s important is that you don’t discount the one for the other and vice versa. Any improvement is a great thing, but it needs to be weighed in terms of overall benefit and increase in profit and productivity.

Edge Capability

Connecting every system within a facility is great. It can enable incredible results and is the baseline goal for achieving the factory of the future. Connecting every system in a facility, as well as every system in a global network of facilities, then connecting those facilities, that’s what true connectivity should aim for.

To do that, you need a powerful cloud solution handling the massive amounts of data that can produce. But, you also need a solution to the bottlenecks that will start popping up in terms of data collection and transfer.

Edge computing allows you to handle large amounts of data handling on, or near, your complex and connected facilities. Connectivity will get you up to date, edge computing will fire you into the future.

With these three elements baked into your future plans, your shop floor connectivity goals can take shape. You will be able to grow without worrying about scalability, because scalability will be an inherent part of your growth. Adaptability will come naturally and your preparations will pay dividends.

What’s next?

When your global IT manager is excited about a platform that links multitudinous systems together with ease, but your shop floor managers are hyped about their ultra unique new piece of equipment. You’ll need something built where both parties can get their hearts desire. That’s why we’re discussing usability next time. We’ll see you there.