Taking Tech into the Plant


Taking Tech into the Plant

Minimizing wear and tear on your technology hardware is a significant step toward avoiding downtime and recovering quickly when problems occur.

“Everybody focuses on software and software development, but there’s another side,” said Jason Hikel of Shelter Systems Limited. As head of Shelter’s information systems team, Hikel is adamant that there are “always gains to be had by using appropriate appliances in a manufacturing environment.”

Hikel knows the appropriate appliance doesn’t necessarily come cheap, but he says the investment is worth it. “Maybe in the short term it’s more expensive to buy an industrial device,” he conceded, but he argues that, over the lifetime of a piece of equipment, good, long-lasting hardware will save a company money by minimizing the costs of replacement, downtime or data recovery.

“As manufacturers in wood,” Hikel explained, “we have some very specific environmental issues that we need to deal with and think about.” Any piece of hardware you bring into the plant—whether it’s a computer to run the saw software or a tablet for production crews to use for time logging—needs to be capable of holding up in the unique environmental conditions of your plant. “When you just buy something off the shelf, it’s not necessarily an appliance that’s going to be hardened for our environments. You’re going to spend more money replacing it down the road when your environmental conditions overwhelm your equipment.”

How much tech expertise do you need in the component industry? It behooves anybody who’s got a manufacturing environment to understand a little about industrial computing as a whole and using modern technology like virtualization and industrial hardware to self-insure or avoid exorbitant costs for computing hardware that’s not appropriate for the manufacturing environment.

Spending a little can save a lot

Hikel walked through an example of how a true industrial appliance—instead of the cheapest computer available—is a cost-saver in the long run. “Everybody thinks that, ‘it’s a $600 computer, so when it fails, I’ll replace it,’” he said, but that logic only goes so far. “It’s always going to fail at the least convenient time,” Hikel pointed out. “When it fails, then you’re going to experience downtime, and you’re going to lose money. If you can mitigate those risks by using an industrial piece of equipment or by having a backup piece of equipment, then you’re ahead of the game.”

Having a backup computer ready to go might sound like overkill, but Hikel contends that it makes a lot of sense. “It’s cheap insurance. Even if it’s that $600 Dell desktop,” he said, “in the grand scheme of things, that’s not all that difficult to obtain and have in case of a disaster situation.” Planning for hardware failure is like planning for maintenance on any other piece of in-plant machinery. You certainly have other $600 and pricier spare parts in stock.

Industrial computers and an investment in virtualization are worth the effort, Hikel insists. “Both those pieces of technology can help you mitigate how much money you lose when a piece of equipment goes down.” In fact, both are central to what he thinks the component manufacturing industry as a whole should be pushing for: more technology adoption and more innovation when it comes to tech in the plant.

Is more technology the future of the component industry? I think at some point there’s going to be a massive disruption in how we’re doing things. Somebody’s going to come up with some kind of revolutionary concept that’s going to push the building industry forward. That’s going to come from some outside, disruptive Silicon Valley-type force.

A high-tech plant with hardware outside

“I hope we’ll see more automation, more automated equipment, a greater use of technology to solve the problems of manufacturing,” Hikel said. He predicts more “fully” automated truss lines in big plants over the next few years, the kind of equipment “where you’re able to, with three people, do the same work that we’re doing with 15 right now.” As lumber prices rise and as both lumber and labor become scarcer, Hikel sees more automation as inevitable.

As that happens, Hikel is also waiting for more simple changes—namely, the ability “to apply pretty standard technological concepts to the manufacturing of trusses.” At Shelter, he said, “we’re asking our vendors constantly what their thoughts are, what their plans are, for virtualizing their computing equipment, especially as it’s linked to their manufacturing equipment.”

Hikel is committed to using thin clients—input-output devices like bare-bones computers or tablets that accept mouse and keyboard commands, display information, but don’t do significant processing—wherever possible. Time-logging or job-tracking programs, for example, can run on cheap devices that are easy to protect in a plant, while saw and laser software can rely on servers that are stored more safely. “I have desktops that I put in a box and out of the way of the forklifts,” Hikel explains. “I connect to them with a thin client so if something goes down, it’s the thin client that breaks and not the computers, which have specific drivers and software running on them.”

How do you engage vendors in conversations about in-plant tech? I ask my vendors, where’s the innovation coming from on the software side? I say: you want us to make this investment; we want software that can work in a virtualized environment.

Building a back-up plan

Hikel’s point is that there are strategies out there that can improve how technology is used in the plant. There are “things that manufacturers all over the country—all over the world!—use, but they just haven’t trickled down into our industry as much as they should,” he said. “Minimizing your downtime and self-insuring by using modern computing methods and technology” is already possible, he argues; executives just need to bring vendors on board.

Every plant manager “should be pushing for more virtualization,” Hikel advised. “From a software and a hardware perspective, that is something that everybody should be doing these days just because it’s so much easier to recover from a disaster situation than in a desktop environment.”

Regardless of the direction those conversations take, no component manufacturing operation has to take on its IT challenges alone. “There’s plenty of IT workers out there who would have a field day in our industry creating new things,” Hikel said, “but we don’t really go out and seek that often.” A limited budget for expanding your staff doesn’t need to be a barrier, he added. “If you don’t have an internal IT team, partner with somebody in your area who understands technology and is interested in manufacturing technology. Find somebody you can partner with instead of carrying the entire cost of supporting an internal department.”

Of course, if you have the people in place, Hikel’s advice is even simpler: “If you’re a manager that has an IT department, certainly go and listen to them sometimes.”

Protect Your Tech

Technology is everywhere in component manufacturing plants. “Even the simplest saws have servo stops and servo angles for the blades,” noted Hikel. Particularly when you’re on a tight budget, it’s wise to invest in protecting the tech you have. “Several hundred dollars can extend the life of your computing equipment, which in turn can extend the life of the manufacturing equipment,” Hikel explained. “It’s really just about using modern methods to overcome the environmental issues that we run across as truss manufacturers.”

• Surge protection and power are conditioning readily available. Use them, and make sure everything is properly grounded.
• An enclosure for your hardware can create positive air pressure that prevents airborne particles from entering the equipment. Use compressed air to keep the enclosure, and the equipment in it, cool in all weather.
• Minimize moving parts and the number of devices you use. No matter how good your housekeeping program is, sawdust will get into your technology. The fewer items you have to clean, maintain and repair, the easier it’ll be to keep up.

About the Author: Before joining the SBC Magazine team in 2015, Dale Erlandson wrote for a variety of publications in several different careers, including non-profit communications, teaching and technical writing.