LEXINGTON, Ky. — Old manufacturing facilities bite the dust every year in the U.S. Artificial intelligence (AI) and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) have provided opportunities for newer “smart plants” to replace stodgy, old manufacturing systems that aren’t worth rebuilding. Some of these shuttered plants show up later on foreign soil where advanced technologies are more easily implemented and less expensively developed.

Not so in Kentucky. Not so at Schneider Electric.

The company welcomed more than 200 customers to the brownfield facility in Lexington, which produces electrical load centers, commonly known as breaker boxes, for residences. Thousands of units come off the lines every day, but the tour focused on EcoStruxure Solutions™, a Schneider Electric IIoT platform. The company not only sells it to customers, it uses it in its own 62-year-old plant, blending old technology with new technology. As told by Ken Engel, a former Lexington plant employee who currently heads up the global supply chain, the plant operated with multiple layers of software, multiple layers of data and equipment that couldn’t connect, and an amazing amount of information that was simply stored in somebody’s head or on a clipboard.

“This factory was built in 1957,” Engel said. “What we want to show you today is how we’ve connected every system and made this factory safe, reliable, and efficient through EcoStruxure Solutions. This factory, situated in a brownfield location, is about 500,000 square feet, making it our largest factory in North America. And it’s very vertically integrated. Fast forward into the ’90s, where we started some of the semi-automated assembly and introduced the fabrication inside of the factory. In 2000, we started some of the robotics, and it was about 2007 when we implemented the efficient material-handling system in the factory. 2015 is when we added some cobalt applications, and, today, you’ll see some ... automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that even move material to a specific area. But not everything could talk; not everything was connected.”


If We Can Do It, You Can Do It

According to Engel, it all starts with integrating connected products.

“The edge control platform is where we collect the data and then pull with our apps and analytics to better understand how we can make factories more efficient,” he said. “What are these connected products that we’re utilizing? How can we use them to make the factory smarter and run more efficiently, safer, and more reliable?

“So, what we’re introducing today is how we’ve connected many diverse manufacturing systems,” continued Engel. “We’re here to show you some of the apps and analytics that help us make sense of the data so that you can do the same in your own facilities. From a global perspective, we have 11 EcoStruxure showcases around the world. We did a launch in Mexico, which is our sixth greenfield facility, and this one in Lexington is our first brownfield facility. Our ambition is to have 100 factories equipped as smart factories by the end of 2020.”

Holding up a smartphone, Jesse Hanz, director, customer experience center, said, “Whether in a data center or on your PC, information is no longer just stored in those two places; it’s everywhere. It’s throughout the fabric of our lives and stored and processed in all kinds of locations. July 2019 marked 50 years since NASA put a man on the moon. Right now, this phone is millions and millions of times more powerful than the computers they used back then.

“Just last year, 90% of all data ever generated in the world was generated in the previous two years, and this is just accelerating,” continued Hanz. “This causes an interesting situation, actually a problem for a lot of companies because their data is no longer 99.999% secure within a data center — it’s decentralized; it’s everywhere. This data could be in a broom closet somewhere on the other side of the world. So, how do owners control not only their susceptibility to cybersecurity but the physical security, the temperature changes, and all the other aspects of managing information flow? EcoStruxure is uniquely suited for all distributed environments as well as data centers. We all demand easy, fast access to data. All of this computing is going out to the edge. So, micro data centers, like we have here at our Lexington plant, with an EcoStruxure platform infrastructure, support all the IT management control, the product control, and the understanding we need to operate a plant efficiently.”


MC: How is the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) affecting industries as all move forward in this new age?

Villa: Schneider Electric sees IIoT as a model for evolution versus being a transformation. We say this because many customers, when they hear IIoT, it seems like a daunting task. But, when you pull it back to what were the manufacturing trends 20 years ago, companies were already offering manufacturing execution systems, which is basically the applications layer of our EcoStruxure Solution that connects with edge control and then with smart devices on the manufacturing floor. So the concept is not something new; it’s more of an evolution from that starting point of manufacturing execution systems.

I think it is important to clarify that 20 years ago, the systems did not receive the market adoption that everybody was expecting. There are some enablers that exist today and convince us that IIoT is now really going to deliver on that value promise that existed 20 years ago.

The first enabler is connectivity. Today, the cost to connect an intelligent device to the web has been reduced dramatically. This brings down barriers of entry for companies or manufacturing facilities to get into IIoT. The second enabling point is the ability to access data from anywhere and at any time; we call that mobility. Everybody carries a smartphone or tablet — that is a big factor. The third enabler for IIoT is the ability to aggregate large amounts of data and to store that data. That was not necessarily true 20 years ago, but now we have the cloud. Last but not least, if you add on top of these enablers the analytics ability that exists today, then you can see that IIoT is ready to be the new manufacturing standard.


MC: Everything in this building is more sensitive today than it was 20 years ago — how do you handle the cybersecurity risk?

(Editor’s Note: For security reasons pertaining to the Lexington plant, Villa’s response is truncated.)

Villa: I believe the first thing we need to recognize when we talk about cybersecurity is that there is no such thing as being 100% isolated from the risk; there’s always going to be some risk out there. It’s a decision about what level of risk mitigation you want to get to. We feel comfortable with the security of our systems … the key point is customers need to look for partners who can examine the total enterprise with them from end to end with a cybersecurity mentality that spans the current state to the future state. This is one area where Schneider Electric has invested substantially, so we can walk our customers through that journey.


MC: What is artificial intelligence and the merging of hardware and software going to do to human employment? For instance, it was mentioned in the tour that 50 forklifts had been replaced.

Villa: It’s a question that we get asked a lot. We need to think about this from the perspective of empowering the operators. The example of the forklifts: The idea is to eliminate the jobs that might be repetitive. In addition, those jobs not utilizing our people resources the best from an economic perspective are often the jobs that have a higher level of risk. If we can redeploy those individuals to jobs where they can continue contributing value and also gain more professional or personal satisfaction as part of their career evolution, it works for everyone. In other words, instead of one person staying his or her whole career as a forklift operator, we offer the opportunity [for them] to move to other areas of the plant to continue contributing value. We think about this IIoT revolution more so as an enhancement of quality of life for these kind of positions.


MC: So, in some ways, technology is creating jobs?

Villa: Exactly.


MC: To what extent will AI in building technology products have an effect on the engineering community or architectural community, as far as how they specify products in the future?

Villa: One of the trends that I see with IIoT is more technology providers at the software application and analytics layer becoming more hardware-agnostic. This means, for the engineering community, they have more freedom to choose the best platforms or to be able to adapt the applications layer on top of an existing platform. That agnostic aspect of the software to the hardware is something  I believe should have precedent. When engineers are defining specifications, they can capture the benefits of an application layer on a green or brownfield facility. They will not be tied to using old solutions just because they are working on old facilities.


MC: What impact will advanced manufacturing practices have on the supply chain itself?

Villa: In my opinion, the next step in this IIoT journey is to expand that digitalization throughout the whole supply chain, upstream and downstream. So, you’ve probably heard this concept from Schneider Electric in our food and beverage segment. We have this concept, which is called from farm to fork. It’s about the ability to drive traceability of the product throughout the supply chain. I believe IIoT will continue expanding within a manufacturing facility or a data center, but then it will naturally expand to embrace the whole supply chain, both upstream and downstream, to capture the maximum benefits for manufacturers and customers.


MC: What else would you like us to know about Schneider Electric?

Villa: Well, thank you for the opportunity. Schneider Electric has a clear, higher-level mission, which is to make sure that energy is available for everybody at anytime and anywhere. We do that by empowering our customers to make more with less usage of energy, and EcoStruxure is our IIoT platform for that, which connects not only vertically on the manufacturing side but also horizontally across other domains. Like with data centers or with buildings, a manufacturing facility does not operate in isolation. There are office buildings to keep safe and comfortable. To keep running in an efficient manner, many have their own data centers to store data. So, when you think about the connectivity that EcoStruxure brings horizontally across these areas, it differentiates or brings a unique value proposition. The second is how much larger an audience it can serve. While getting into this IIoT journey, EcoStruxure can be deployed in a modular way. So you move the conversation as a customer from a capital expenditure investment to an optics investment, and I believe that brings a lot of benefits to the customers we serve.

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