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How to get rid of data silos in manufacturing

How can you identify the best move for your business? Your knowledge of the market, the competition and your customers’ expectations are all invaluable assets. However, when it comes to making the right investment, intuition is good, but data is better. Here Neil Ballinger, head of EMEA at automation parts supplier EU Automation, explains why data silos might be hindering your business and how to get rid of them.

Data silos occur when valuable information from raw data is accessible only by one department and kept isolated from the rest of the team, instead of being shared at a company level. This prevents C-level executives from having full visibility over the plant’s operations and, over time, leads to a general lack of transparency and efficiency in the company.

Data silos are the norm, not the exception, and on some level they can even be beneficial — by having access to data that pertain to their department, different teams can focus on the specific issues at hand without being overwhelmed by information that is irrelevant to their tasks. However, when data silos become the norm and prevent collaboration from teams that might work together on common issues, they can hinder decision making and slow down processes.

 For example, if you’re tasked with deciding when it’s time to invest in a new piece of equipment, you’ll probably have access to data about the machine’s life expectancy and the risk of their components becoming obsolete. However, you may lack access to data used for predictive maintenance, a practice that can considerably extend the machine’s lifespan. Likewise, you might lack information on deadlines to fulfil orders, and be unaware of times when a piece of equipment is under stress from working at full capacity for extended periods, which will eventually impact its functionality.

Causes and consequences

Data silos happen when different datasets can’t communicate with each other. For example, if your method of choice to collect data is pen and paper, or even the good old Excel spreadsheet, it’s unlikely that the process of transferring data from one department to another will be smooth. Even when specific software for data collection and analysis are used, teams might use different platforms, making it difficult to pass information.

The pace at which a company grows can also impact the presence of data silos. In large corporations, getting access to data may require several steps, and by the time these are completed, the data might be outdated or no longer needed.

The solution

Plant managers might think that the solution to data silos is simply exporting and sharing the different databases where information is stored. However, because data is not static, employees should download and share databases multiple times a day, which would be incredibly time-consuming and unproductive.

The real solution lies in data integration. Because data is most likely gathered and stored by different tools, integrating those tools with a cloud-based solution is the best choice. Companies can also consider connecting their Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) applications, Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) and core automation systems to a smart factory analytics platform to have centralised access to different streams of data.

Finally, while having the most suitable technology in place is important, fostering a collaborative company culture is just as crucial.  Plant managers should try and create business practices that encourage employees to share valuable information outside of their teams.

Companies that decide to break down data silos once and for all will have valuable information to support decision-making, as well as support the transparency of the organisation in the long run.

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