By Jenn Mullen
Submitted by Keysight Technologies
In episode 8 of Source De[Code], host Ben Coffin interviews Derek Ong to explore Big Data's place in the manufacturing world. Derek and Ben play with analogies from the Marvel Comic Universe (MCU) to illustrate how Big Data is helping to transform this data-rich sector. I am not an expert in Big Data, manufacturing, or engineering; I am, however, an expert in the MCU. Framing the conversation this way painted an entertaining and informative picture of how Big Data is influencing transformation in the industrial sector-- and beyond.
Every MCU comic leverages advanced technologies as a compelling plot device. At their core, however, these comics have become a blockbuster franchise because the heroes we root for are relatable-- witty, flawed, and above all else, human. Technologies developed at Stark Industries or the Wakandan Design Group are means to an end that enable our heroes to defend the multiverse. This story is no different.
"Data gives us superpowers," says Ben Coffin. "It gives you insights to be able to sift between processes and operational efficiencies to determine what's working and what isn't."
BEFORE BIG DATA: THE ORIGIN STORY
This hero's journey, like every comic book series, begins with a winding origin story filled with broken processes, frustration, and the faintest spark of change. Our story begins in the early days of Industry 4.0 when computing was still a nascent industry-- the 1980s. In the film adaptation, the narrative would be set to Kraftwerk's 1981 album, Computer World. This oracular magnum opus presaged the marvels and mysteries of today's ubiquitous digital connectivity. During this time, factories were adopting computerized manufacturing systems with limited automation capabilities that captured data. This data enabled factory managers to coordinate processes with an eye toward improving productivity and efficiency.
These integrated systems created onion-like data pyramids that, while a vast improvement on what they replaced, were far from ideal. Each layer sanitized and condensed valuable data at each stage. Hardware and software that comprise the core's Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system collect equipment- and systems-level operational data to facilitate automation processes. The SCADA feeds the captured information detailing machine temperature, equipment status, and whether machines are operating within thresholds into a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) which looks at the factory from an operational level to assist factory managers in asset optimization. The MES data is then fed into an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system which takes an even higher-level view of operations. ERPs are the domain of corporate decision-makers who use the information to track and control inventory for resource and shipment planning.
Every comic book fan knows that their favorite heroes are the product of circumstance. In their origin stories, these bright everyday men and women are head-down, trying to get through the grind of day-to-day life in a much less complex environment than what we, the readers, know is coming. Our hero, like Marvel's main characters, is naturally bright, curious, and diligent; doing their best with the limited tools and resources at their disposal. What sets the nascent superhero apart from their peers is vision.
"Technology holds infinite possibilities for mankind and will one day rid society of all its ills," Howard Stark eloquently states in the second Iron Man film, foreshadowing his son's heroic future and demonstrating the power of vision. "Soon, technology will affect the way you live your life every day. No more tedious work, leaving more time for leisure activities and enjoying the sweet life."
Those of us who were alive in the 80s and 90s will vividly recall the sounds of exertion that came from computers processing the most basic requests. Despite these factory systems being objectively more powerful than the Apple II or Commodore we had at home, their bandwidth and computational powers were limited. If a comic book artist were to illustrate this scene, we would see our hero type a query into the system, hit enter, and wait. And wait. And wait as their computer heaved, whirred, and groaned to run the issuant report. In the next panel, we would see our pre-powers hero hunched over in his office chair, his head buried in his hands still clutching the crumpled read-out.
During this time, data was viewed through a short-term, action-specific lens as the means to a more efficient end. Perhaps because of this, little research had been done into effective, cost-efficient data storage methods. These factors resulted in data being stored on an as-needed basis until it served its specific efficacy or operational purpose before it was jettisoned and replaced. Our hero's report would have lacked a more global context and, if they made the wrong inference in their query, hours would have been lost awaiting an incomplete, potentially inaccurate, answer.
FROM THE DIGITAL CLOUD, A HERO EMERGES TRANSFORMED
There is a long-standing and (mostly) friendly rivalry between the MCU and the DC Comics Universe (DCU). In the DCU, the hero leads a solitary, double life. The banal mask they present to the world comes off in secret to fight crime from the shadows. By contrast, it is only the MCU's friendly neighborhood Spiderman who (unsuccessfully) obfuscates his true nature this way-- but only because an awkward, book-smart teenager doing that sets him apart so spectacularly would break the fourth wall. Even then, Peter Parker does not operate in a silo. Like Spidey, each Avenger undertakes their hero's journey aided in navigating their burgeoning superpowers by human and technological sidekicks. It is only when the Avengers assemble, however, that they have what it takes to save the day. Collaboration and the humility to seek out support are important to true success.
In the three decades since the computer revolution began in earnest, progress has followed Moore's law and, for the manufacturing sector, given rise to three complementary technologies that, like the Avengers, equip our hero with the ability to fully access the superpowers Big Data affords them. First, advanced technologies have emerged in recent times that can process the vast wealth of data being generated from a growing number of sources. Next, data mining, advanced analytics, machine learning (ML), and artificial intelligence (AI) scrape those data sets to identify correlations and accurate predictions. Thirdly, a scalable and highly elastic cloud architecture has evolved which allows these immense data sets to be scaled up or down depending on the scope of insights needed. These three technologies combine to create a detailed data landscape that can be seen from views as high as Captain Marvel's space lab, as granular as Antman in the Quantum Realm, or anywhere in between.
This culmination of technologies would represent the critical juncture in our hero's evolution from brilliant but beleaguered to superhero. The comic's next panel would show our hero, radiating with newfound power, tossing the crumpled report built from inferred, stripped-down, and summarized data into an overflowing bin. Subsequent pages would create a montage where our hero uncovers the extent of his capabilities.
"To manage and use big data," says Derek Ong in the podcast, "you're like Dr. Strange-- you can turn back time. You can put the layers back on the onion the way he turned back time from an apple core to the full fresh apple."
Like Dr. Strange's dramatic scene in the Infinity Gauntlet series, our hero can traverse space and time to go backward and identify the root cause of an issue, then sift through contextualized data to identify influencing factors and determine the best path forward for achieving success. This origin story would end with our hero peering out over a happily productive facility, hands on hips, and realizing that he could not stop with his own success. Rather than hoarding these powers, our hero's ongoing mission is to create new superheroes who eschew the old, data-constrictive processes and embrace the power of Big Data already at their fingertips.
ABOUT THE GUEST: DEREK ONG
Derek has over 15 years of experience in the electronics industry. Currently, he spearheads innovation in software applications and Big Data analytics for the Smart Factory and Industry 4.0 applications at Keysight. He received his electrical engineering degree from the University of New Brunswick in Canada.
What was the 'aha' moment that started you down the path and influenced you on your journey to where you are now?
It was the moment when I discovered I could help customers realize tangible benefits by demystifying big data analytics, machine learning, AI, and software to create something actionable, applicable, relevant, and practical.
If you hadn't chosen your current profession, what would you have pursued instead? Why?
I would have studied finance or computer science and then gone into fintech, pay my dues, and ultimately make tons of money while jet-setting the world in business class.
Where can we find you when you're not innovating the future of technology?
Right now, this is my focus. But I'll make up for it when I'm retired in Penang having the time of the rest of my life.
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At Keysight (NYSE: KEYS), we inspire and empower innovators to bring world-changing technologies to life. As an S&P 500 company, we’re delivering market-leading design, emulation, and test solutions to help engineers develop and deploy faster, with less risk, throughout the entire product lifecycle. We’re a global innovation partner enabling customers in communications, industrial automation, aerospace and defense, automotive, semiconductor, and general electronics markets to accelerate innovation to connect and secure the world. Learn more at Keysight Newsroom and www.keysight.com.
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