Industry 4.0 — aka the internet of things — is all the rage. Even though true Industry 4.0, where every single production machine, and every single factory, is interconnected, is probably decades away if we ever really get there.
This month, Best Practices takes you into that world. We’ll take a closer look at a company called ei3 Corp., founded in 1999, that sets up cloud-based Industry 4.0 systems. (Ei3 is “based” in Pearl River, N.Y., north of New York City, but the “cloud” is its real home.)
CEO Spencer Cramer said ei3 concentrates on middle-tier industrial clients, especially manufacturers of machinery in plastics, paper, converting, printing, packaging and other areas.
Cramer said working with machinery companies is the best way for Industry 4.0 to reach the broad manufacturing world.
“We really believe that for the internet of things, the biggest opportunity is for machinery OEMs,” he said. Machine builders put hardware on their equipment, and ei3 software helps them connect the data to the cloud.
Cramer wrote a blog that explains the importance of equipment makers: “Machine builders have a deep base of equipment knowledge and understand manufacturing best practices. This makes the delivery of internet of things services a natural extension of the engineering-driven relationship between machine builders and their customers.”
Now, if you’ve never heard of ei3, that’s by design. The company offers a “white label solution,” which is tech-speak for operating in the background for its equipment clients, with its software meshing seamlessly with theirs. And ei3 officials claim to connect thousands of industrial devices in more than 90 countries.
For plastics, that includes Bobst Italia SpA, an Italian maker of printing equipment for flexible materials.
And also a company better known to readers of Best Practices: Milacron Holdings Corp. That’s because ei3 is the force behind Milacron 4.0, which securely connects Milacron equipment to the cloud, linking a customer to a full suite of services like remote monitoring of what’s happening in their molding plants, and manages and maintains the equipment — anywhere in the world.
ei3 Corp.Ei3’s operations center.
Milacron and other plastics machinery makers are using these cloud-based capabilities to troubleshoot machines remotely. Instead of always needing to fly in a service person or muddle through on the phone, a processor can link directly with an expert at a machinery company. Milacron says that a majority of problems can be resolved online in less than two hours.
Then there’s Milacron’s interactive parts catalog.
As Spencer Cramer said: “The internet of things is the biggest opportunity for machinery in a long, long time.”
Milacron kicked off Milacron 4.0 at the K 2013 show in Germany, according to Michael Prachar, the machinery maker’s vice president of marketing of global injection machinery.
Prachar said Milacron 4.0 can offer a lot more remote functions — like alerts for predictive maintenance, recipe functions for mold changes, using machine data as a key part of product quality, look at historical data on downtime. It can be upgraded over time.
Typically, Prachar said, a processor will try it on a few machines, and the operations people quickly see the value. And the convenience.
“When you move the information to the cloud, it allows access anywhere,” he said. “They have the ability to see and monitor a fleet of machines anywhere in the world.”
Prachar said Milacron has a five-year partnership agreement with ei3. “We partnered with them. They were in that space, and it made sense for us to work together and take this concept of technology to the plastics industry together,” he said.
In late June, ei3 hired Dan Lillback, who worked at Milacron for six years as director of customer service, moving to director of North American aftermarket, as the ei3 director of business development.
Lillback said ei3 is talking to other plastics machinery companies, outside of injection molding presses, where it has the close relationship with Milacron
Lillback helped establish Milacron’s eStore, developed advanced customer analytics and supported the initial stages of Milacron 4.0. Before coming to Milacron, Lillback had spent a dozen years at retailer Macy’s, leading customer service call centers.
Talk about a diverse background! But when you think about it, customer service is customer service, whether it’s a credit card question about your clothing purchase or remote ordering a spare part for an injection molding machine.
So the big question is: How many molders are really doing Industry 4.0 today?
Prachar said that nobody is doing “full” Industry 4.0 today. But the situation is fluid, he said, and “we’ll see it continue to expand.”
One key will be industrywide standards, or protocols, that will bring full interconnectivity between different brands of equipment. Euromap 77 is the new European standard for the exchange of data between injection molding machines and central computers or manufacturing execution systems (MES).
Euromap 77 will need to be adopted in other parts of the world, especially the United States and Asia, for Industry 4.0 to get a full head of steam in plastics.
Prachar said Milacron has customers doing remote monitoring and analytics, as well as thresholds and alerts. “The alerts is a commonly used feature for those who are engaging in this,” he said.
Cramer, the head of ei3, gets pumped up about technology. He sees a future for something called “augmented reality.” It’s not the same as virtual reality. They both use special glasses, but augmented reality lets you see actual things that are in your line of sight. A remote service person can ask the machine operator to put on his augmented reality glasses, and they both see the same thing. And the service technician can post drawings or how-to guides that appear before the operator.
“It’s as if he was there seeing the same thing through the same eyes,” Cramer said.