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29. Jan 2018 | Raw materials

Digitisation and Big Data – What are they good for?

You’ve only just said goodbye to paper in the laboratory and made your acquaintance with Microsoft Excel and suddenly everyone's talking about digitisation. But what can the coatings and paints industry do with digitisation and big data?

(Source: Konstantin Hermann - Fotolia)

What is digitisation? Simply put, digitisation is the process of converting the world around us into a digital representation which can be processed on a computer, transmitted across digital networks and saved more or less permanently on digital media. Some relevant aspects in the coatings world this world would be, say, a colour tone, a layer thickness, a substrate, an electrical conductance, a degree of rust penetration, an ambient temperature, the salinity of the air, customer satisfaction and much more besides.

Data can be collected more easily now than ever before

But why is digitisation taking over both the economy and society nowadays? The answer, as with all industrial revolutions, is actually very simple: because it works! It has never been as easy as it is today to collect, transmit and process data. And vast swathes of the world have never before been as close together and as reachable so quickly as they are now.

Prisma

Mike Bach, CEO of Prisma Gesellschaft für angewandte Informatik.

In our dealings with coatings companies over the years, we have repeatedly found that their corporate processes are only partially digitised, with very little networking between them.

Even now, the most common form of digitisation encountered by us is Microsoft Excel files which are used, e.g., for calculating recipes and logging test values, and the use of "in-house” databases, often based on Microsoft Access. These tend to be stored in a somewhat structured way on a file server, while communications and networking are done by e-mail or over the phone. Working hours are recorded on a separate system, and logged operations data are channelled only into production planning.

More gut feeling than rational decision-making

What’s more, discussions with customers tend to be documented either only at the employee’s own work place or possibly in the form of visit reports which are stored in the address database, isolated from all other processes. A great deal of corporate knowledge is locked away inside employees’ heads and the spotting of entrepreneurial potential and market trends is more often than not based on gut feeling rather than on rational decision making.

Employees within the sector have revealed to us that they have huge problems with managing the data in the Excel files (or other documents, databases or files), extracting specific data and, above all, comprehensively evaluating the information contained therein.

Decisions based on facts

Managers, for their part, need reliable figures upon which to base their decisions and steering activities. Unfortunately, the sheer number of documents and diverse databases involved renders such evaluations very complicated and tedious and in some cases simply impossible. Finally, corporate databases tend to contain hardly any information on market observations, trends and, above all, customers.


Conference tip:

Digital concepts for coatings manufacturing will also be topic at the EC Technology Forum | Enhancing automation in Berlin, Germany, at March 14 and 15. Early bird registration is possible until 31 January 2018.


When it comes to conceptualising software solutions the following key areas can be identified for a company: data collection, meaningful storage, networking of all participating processes and instruments and, above all, the evaluation of the available data. That is what digitisation, big data and industry 4.0 are all about.

The digitisation strategy must therefore pursue the creation of structured databases that can assume the tasks of storing and – crucially – rapidly searching, linking and evaluating the data generated in the various processes. Some of the big players in the field of ERP, such as Microsoft, SAP and Oracle, offer useful databases which can be overlaid with versatile systems for managing systematic digitisation strategies. With proper planning and execution, many of the Excel spreadsheets used in a company can be migrated to such databases where they can be evaluated much more effectively.

The database as the central point of contact

The next step is to link the databases to the corporate processes. These are the interfaces for logging operations data, sensors and devices as well as for providing input forms and sequential control on PCs and tablet computers.

For activities requiring hands-free operation or an unencumbered view of the work area, there are useful speech-recognition assistants available by means of which applications can be controlled, as well as data glasses which display required information in the wearer’s field of vision.

It’s not just about numbers

The paints and coatings industry is about more than just discrete, plain numbers. It's also about visual impressions and possibly tactile or other potentially highly subjective assessments. Such information also needs to be captured in the corporate database, e.g. in the form of individual or series of digital photos. This type of documentation is vital for laboratory tests, test series and long-term tests, and above all for documenting and recording damage in the field.

Mobile devices such as tablets and smart-phones, digital cameras and, more recently, drones capable of over-flying, say, wind turbines and bridges serve as a further source of data. These can be automatically linked to location data from which climatic conditions can be determined, thereby offering scope for deriving further evaluation models that can furnish important numbers.

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