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“Manufacturing stores more data than any other sector — close to 2 exabytes of new data stored in 2010,” according to McKinsey’s report on big data. Given that the manufacturing sector continues to show increasing productivity, it follows that the increased use of data is a major contributor to that productivity growth. The report speculates that even though manufacturers’ increasing accumulation of big data is partially a result of the proliferation of automation and SCADA in the plant, benefits extend beyond the factory. Specifically mentioned was the exchange of information for collaboration with customers on product design, collaborative forecasting and planning, availability of demand data (point-of-sale) for more precise production and replenishment. We’ve seen other benefits including PLC integration, sensors and analytics, and other applications that support increased productivity and supply chain efficiency.

The Human Side of the Equation

One impediment in all this is on the human side of the equation. As long as workers continue to rely on spreadsheets, white boards at their workstations, and the backs of envelopes to keep track of schedules and manage workflow, companies will not be able to gain full benefits of big data.

Education and on-the-job training will certainly help. Indeed, the next generation of manufacturing workers and managers will have grown up in a world of omnipresent data and will more readily accept and exploit big data’s benefits.

Further Linkages

But they will also demand more.

Today’s digital world is awash in so-called social networks and applications consisting primarily of unstructured data that is very different from the tracking provided by today’s manufacturing systems. Traditional data is tightly controlled – think defined data fields, alphanumeric or numeric, of certain length and content. Social network data is more likely to be plain text of indeterminate length with uncontrolled spelling and abbreviation, video, photos, and other “objects.”

While modern databases are certainly capable of storing and managing objects, applications have limited capability to parse them and use the information. How do you do math on videos or sort and analyze unlabeled photos?

Enterprise-Wide Collaboration

Big data has had and is continuing to have an important impact on manufacturing and supply chain operations and there is nearly unlimited potential for additional benefits ahead. As an example, manufacturers can now create a collaborative work environment and facilitate communication by integrating Salesforce Chatter features with cloud ERP systems.

This data integration helps manufacturers improve inventory management, customer service, maintenance management, production control scheduling and more. The functionality shows how collaboration adds strength to all processes and programs.

As applications adapt to exploit unstructured social information, new realms of collaboration and coordination will become apparent. The hardest part may be trying to keep up with all the new capabilities that big data will deliver to our laptops, tablets, phones and media players.

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