To capture the full benefits of connected industrial systems, companies must manage the critical interface between data and people.

by Mark Hill, Business Development Manager Operational Intelligence Sector at Capula

Much of the discussion surrounding Industry 4.0 is focussed on decision-making by machines. That is certainly a key area of innovation and rapid progress. Advanced automation systems, artificial intelligence and fast, seamless communication between assets all have the potential to transform the performance and productivity of industrial systems.

But there’s another area where tight integration and real time communication is changing the way companies work today. In every industrial organisation, every day, and at every level, people need to make decisions such as, ‘What are the root causes of our most costly quality issues?’, ‘Will we have the production capacity to fulfil this major new order?’ and ‘Do we need to invest in a new plant next year?’

Faster access to better information helps people get these decisions right, and companies that make more good decisions tend to outperform those that don’t.

For those involved in the industrial automation system, however, the design and development of systems that facilitate better decision-making is a different kind of challenge. While computers thrive on high volumes of data, people quickly become overwhelmed.  If Industry 4.0 technologies are to become a benefit, not a burden, their designers will have to think hard about the human factor, finding innovative ways to filter, sort and present data so people can interpret, understand and act upon it.

Data presentation and visualisation challenges appear all over the industrial control landscape, from the control interfaces of sophisticated machines to plant-wide alarm management systems and C-suite performance dashboards. Each of these applications must be tailored to its role, but to be effective, they all need to share three fundamental characteristics

  • Get the right data backbone in place. To present the right information to users, the system needs access to all the relevant data. That can only happen if companies have the groundwork in place: consolidating sources, enforcing standards and managing quality issues.
  • Use appropriate expertise. Human interface and data visualisation design are specialised skills. Data presentation systems should be designed with input from knowledgeable, experienced people.
  • Give the user control. Data visualisation systems are going to become a central part of the way many staff perform their roles. To work efficiently, they need the ability to fine tune and customise the operation of these tools. To avoid costs, delays and frustration down the line, that flexibility should be designed into the system from the start. Using a modern, extensible data visualisation platform like PTC’s Thingworx can be of significant benefit here.