Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What’s the Big Deal about Big Data?

Data is everywhere—lurking in our inboxes; languishing in our plant databases; and lingering in BI tools and analytics meant to provide insight, and intelligence to our everyday tasks.  Long ago I did an analysis of how many plant floor software applications a typical large manufacturing plant had—and it was well over 50.  This included legacy, custom, and commercial off-the-shelf applications for a variety of operations, from quality to production to maintenance.  That’s a lot of data hiding in a lot of applications. 

It’s logical to think that this data can be used for more than the sum of its parts—and that’s the foundation for products such as Enterprise Manufacturing Intelligence (EMI). EMI puts real-time and near-real time transactional or plant data into context or relationships with one another, allowing users to define Key Performance Indicators that can be measured (or quantified) and monitored.  Think of quality by shift, energy usage by plant.  But is there more? 

A 2011 article from McKinsey touches on why Big Data is important: as a competitive enabler; as a means to better understand your business; as a way to capture and manage knowledge from workers that are retiring or entering the workforce.  But not enough manufacturers are paying heed to these benefits, and are missing the real value that Big Data can bring.
The challenge to Big Data, is how to find the pearls of wisdom—ie, the data you really need in order to make informed decisions.  When there’s so much out there, what are really the important, critical pieces of data that reflect the best practices, standardization, and knowledge management so critically needed?

There needs to be a rationalization—a mapping—of what you need, what you have, and how you want to get there.  This seems to be missing in a lot of the failed implementations of BI.  For manufacturing, there are a plethora of tools and products designed to address facets of Big Data: historian reporting tools; SQL Reporting Services; SharePoint; Enterprise Manufacturing Intelligence; and mobile reporting all take a portion of Big Data, but they are narrow in focus and therefore miss the point of an overarching business analytics system.

Big Data should provide useable, actionable information that manufacturers can use to refine and improve their processes.  I don’t see that happening yet.  We do have near real time tools, but it’s not to the level of providing both the alarm management, and workflow needed to remediate, for example.  Or monitor a process over several days, and provide leading indicator advice about where improvements could be made.  Additionally, adding unstructured data inputs==from informed workers, from handwritten data logs and charts, is where the real gains in productivity lay.
So that’s what is the Big Deal about Big Data.  That journey of getting to the next level, overlaying your existing databases, and blending with the knowledge, intelligence, and experience that already exists in your plant.  THAT would be something!

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