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  • Jim Gavigan

Can Data Flow Be a Resource Just Like Water and Electricity?

This blog originally posted on Jim Gavigan's LinkedIn page here.

When was the last time that you plugged in a device to an electrical outlet and didn’t get power? How about the last time you turned a handle on a faucet and didn’t get water? Did it surprise you when it happened? Not having the electricity or water when you want it really isn’t the norm is it?

Imagine an industrial world where we get the data and information we need from our production assets as easily and reliably as we get water from the faucet or electricity from an outlet. Imagine that it is just there, waiting to be asked for. Think that can never happen? Think again…

In my second blog post, I questioned why industrial data can’t be like Yelp. Certainly this post is in the same vein and similar in thought, but I was listening to a presentation not long ago from a former colleague that posed the question in my subject line – can our industrial data be as robust and reliable as the utilities that we take for granted? It is something that has stuck with me for months since then and I knew it was something I wanted to write about.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think we are a long way away from this being a universal concept where all of the data that is being produced by an industrial manufacturer or a utility will flow like our current utilities, but I think that day is coming. Whether I agree with all of the hysteria and writing over the industrial internet of things or not, this mega trend is a reality that we that work in manufacturing and utilities need to continue to address.

What are we missing and why is our data not as reliable as our utilities? The answer: Infrastructure! How would the electricity get to the outlet without the generation plant, the transmission lines, the breakers, the transformers, and all of the other equipment required that is the electrical grid? We have all types of infrastructure today that we take for granted that make our lives easier. Imagine life without, or with a lesser infrastructure of, the following:

  • Roads

  • Airports

  • The Internet

  • Wastewater Systems

  • Cellular Phone Networks

The issue that I typically see that holds companies back from having data as a resource like water and electricity is infrastructure. They simply don’t have a data infrastructure in place to handle it. There are typically many islands of information within a company and the bridges between them many times either don’t exist or they aren’t easy to maintain if they do exist.

Another analogy to what I mean is similar to when a new interstate is built, the road is complete but not all of the exits are fully construction and ready for traffic and not all of the on/off ramps are done. Roads that should be 4 lanes and paved are still single lane roads of dirt or gravel. Unfortunately, infrastructure isn’t sexy and there is typically not an immediate return on the infrastructure investment. How valuable is a great airport if there isn’t a good road to it? Often, companies are focused on applications and analytics before the foundational data infrastructure is built out and complete, which limits the value that can be gleaned using the analytics and applications.

Here is another way to think about it. We take for granted now all of the capabilities that are in our smartphones. I often use my phone to navigate to my prospect’s plants, to find food, to stay in touch with people that don’t live near me, to read the news, check my email, use a flashlight and other things. I didn’t do many of those things 10 or 15 years ago. I had road atlases, used phone books or asked locals, had to write letters and pay extra for long distance calls, pick up a newspaper, and turn on a computer to do these things.

So, what if the following infrastructure hadn’t been put in place like the below:

  • Cellular, wired, wireless networks, and servers that allow us to stay connected to this thing called the internet at all times

  • Digitized maps and digitized real time traffic alerts

  • Digitized directory of restaurants, shops, and other businesses

The truth be told, there is a TON of infrastructure that we take for granted in our personal and professional lives that add value to our day. In reality, if people hadn’t laid the infrastructure in place and made the investment over the last 10, 15, or even 20 years to use our cell phones in this manner, then where would we be? 15 years ago, I couldn’t even have even thought about half the things I now do without even thinking about it on my phone. I think a lot of us in the manufacturing and utilities spaces can’t imagine what we would do if we truly had all of the data we needed at our disposal, or if we can, it seems so distant and there are so many obstacles in the way that we will never get there.

We that work in the manufacturing and utilities sectors need to lay down this type of infrastructure for the information and applications that will be valuable to us over the next 10-15 years and beyond. We need to “plug in” to ALL of our data so that we can turn it in to information that we can then turn in to knowledge; turn that knowledge into the right actions that lead to more profits. Infrastructure may not be sexy or inherently profitable, but to make the next leap in productivity and quality, we need to beef up our data infrastructures.

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