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Rockwell finds success in ‘Internet of Things’ at Twinsburg and elsewhere

10/3/2014

Rockwell Automation’s big Twinsburg factory is embracing what is called the “Internet of Things.”

It’s a philosophy, as well as a growing technology, that has machines talking with machines, machines talking with people and people talking with people, all via the Internet.

And it is improving the way the company makes its industrial controllers, machine interface and related components at its 257,000-square-foot Darrow Road facility.

Rockwell Automation, a $6.4 billion global manufacturer based in Milwaukee, is implementing and using the Internet of Things in almost everything it does.

At the Twinsburg plant, now celebrating 35 years in the northern Summit County city, the real-time communication and feedback using software and hardware embedded in its systems and machines is improving productivity and reducing errors, executives and employees there say.

Rockwell is on the leading edge of the movement and technology, and allowing it do things not possible with a much slower “paper based” business model, they said.

“In 2006, Rockwell made a big decision, a decision to restructure the company,” said Marty Thomas, senior vice president for operations, during a recent visit to Twinsburg. The company that year had about $4 billion in revenue and was highly dependent on the automobile industry, he said.

Thomas, who had just joined the company then, said he and other executives looked at the location of Rockwell’s factories and decided they needed to restructure the company’s entire supply chain.

“That is where the Internet of Things came from,” Thomas said. The company at the time did not have easy or fast access to the factories, data and people that it needed to better compete in the global economy, he said.

“It became critical for us to see what was happening on that factory floor on a real-time basis,” he said.

Rockwell developed a way to take data off of each of its factory machines around the world and make that data readily accessible — not just in the individual plants but at all other company locations, including via smartphones.

That, for example, lets Rockwell managers notice such things as machines in Singapore running more efficiently than, say, similar machines in Mexico, Thomas said.

“Then we can find what plant is doing what and get everyone up to the same best practices,” he said. “It’s one thing to decide to do it. It’s a whole other thing to implement it. It took five years. ... It takes a lot of cultural work as well as [information technology] programming work to really take advantage of the systems you put in place.”

And it’s a never-ending improvement process, he said.

The Internet of Things, where almost everything will have embedded technology that communicates via the Internet, is here to stay, said John Nicholas. He is the program co-leader and associate professor of computer information systems in the Department of Business and Information Systems at the University of Akron. His work history includes time with Allen-Bradley, a Rockwell brand.

“Everything now is mobile and moving to the cloud,” Nicholas said. In some ways, the Internet of Things is a throwback to the days when people were connected to a central mainframe computer, only now with people accessing centralized server farms, he said.

“I saw this coming 20 years ago. It was only a matter of when,” he said.

Manufacturers will need to adapt to the Internet of Things, with those who do it sooner having an advantage over latecomers, Nicholas said. “We are in a global economy.”

Dominic Coletta, vice president of manufacturing operations at Rockwell’s Mayfield Heights offices, said the technology and procedures also gives real-time information to people on the factory floor.

“They know how they are doing immediately,” he said.

Twinsburg plant manager Joseph Rosing said he and others can easily see how parts of the factory are performing. Video monitors around the plant provide real-time updates on machinery and other data. But others outside the plant can see the same information, too.

“An engineer anywhere in the world can pull down our data,” Rosing said.

Not that far back, it took a lot of time to gather information in order to solve a problem, said Brian McCaffrey, an engineer who has been at the Twinsburg plant for 25 years.

The new technology immediately gives him the data he needs, he said. That means that in some cases what took a year to resolve can be done now in a month or less, he said.

“It’s kind of like going to a sporting event. You see the score,” McCaffrey said. “It provides a lot of good information for decision making.”

Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or [email protected].

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