Vikram Kumar, President and CEO of AVG Automation, offers some incredible insight into the world of Digital Transformation and Industry 4.0 technology. In this wide-ranging interview, Vikram surveys the evolution of manufacturing from the invention of the PLC to the present and beyond, looking ahead at which industries and applications will be critical over the next 5-10 years. Our discussion covers the perception of Industry 4.0, overcoming resistance to change, and the considerations organizations need to make when implementing new technologies, as well as the benefits of AI and machine learning to manufacturers. We also explore how the pandemic has accelerated the evolution of Industry 4.0 initiatives and showed how a lack of Digital Transformation can disrupt the supply chain. Plus, Vikram defines what Industry 4.0 and Digital Transformation mean in the context of adopting a better approach to business.
“You don’t need to shut down your entire process or machines by getting the (Industry) 4.0 and implementing data collection. Increment step-by-step in parallel.” – Vikram
Vikram Aditya Kumar is Chairman and CEO of the AVG Group of companies headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. The AVG Group of companies operates world-wide in many different fields including manufacturing state of the art automation control products, (under the brands of EZAutomation, Uticor Technologies and Autotech Controls) medical device equipment, real-estate investments, travel services and consultancy, and water management equipment. Mr. Kumar is an engineer, inventor, entrepreneur, a sales and marketing specialist and is heavily involved in global investments.
Right after graduation, Vikram Kumar joined the family business, to which he had been exposed to as early as 10 years old doing summer jobs. He quickly mastered the art of running manufacturing operations and then running the Sales, Marketing and Finance operations in a record one year time frame, and is now with the retirement of Senior Kumar in 2015, the Chairman and CEO of AVG. In 2016, Vikram Kumar was awarded the “Engineering Leader under 40” by Control Engineering and CFE Media Publications.
AVG proudly manufacturers all its products in the United States. On Oct. 17th 2017, President Trump personally congratulated Vikram in the Oval Office on AVG’s success in creating American jobs.
Vikram also serves as the Chairman of the Republican Hindu Coalition with hundreds of thousands of members consisting of Indian American business owners, doctors, professional leaders and scholars from all 50 United States.
Don: So Vikram, listen, welcome. I totally appreciate you taking this time to have a little conversation today. I know you just got introduced more formally as we opened up the podcast here, but, take a minute, introduce yourself, a little bit of your background, a little bit about your company, your business activities, kinda where you come from, and then we'll get into some other things about Digital Transformation and Industry 4.0 and what's going on in the industrial sphere.
Vikram: Perfect. Well, first off. Don, thanks for having me. I'm glad to be able to speak with you today. So a little bit about myself and the organization. So, I'm the President and CEO of AVG Automation, a division of the AVG Group of Companies, the AVG Group of Companies gets involved with many different facets of businesses from obviously industrial automation, manufacturing, PLCs, HMIs, timers, power supplies, all different types of industrial automation equipment. Started in 1968, the first company formally known as Struthers Dunn actually, which became Uticor Technologies invented the PLC and they had the patent issued to them in 1973. And then, besides AVG Automation, we do our own printed circuit boards, we have our own semiconductor fab, we get into medical devices, and we get into system hybrid, so pretty much anything with electrons flowing through it, AVG gets quite involved into it.
Vikram: My background, I'm an electrical engineer, an engineering nerd by training, and I love it. I used to be in design and did get quite involved with the design of products, but in the more recent years, let's say eight to 10 years, kinda got more into expansion of business and sales and marketing, and kind of executive management of the different automation divisions, which comprised of three different companies actually, one of which were focused on today, Uticor Technologies. Which is an Ignition Onboard partner, EZAutomation, which was actually the first PLC manufacturer after Arlen Nipper kind of approached us to implement MQTT and Sparkplug which was back a couple of years ago, or in almost, 2017 I believe, so about four years ago. And then Autotech Controls, which is more on position feedback type of devices. So yeah, engineer/business development, and I like to call it the chief cook/bottle washer. A little bit of everything, wherever I'm needed, I guess.
Don: Yeah, that's good. But listen, I wanted you to introduce yourself a little bit more and the company like you just did, because I think with the background of the organization and its depth all the way back to 1968, boy, have there been some changes over those last 50 years.
Vikram: Oh, definitely.
Don: That you haven't seen 'cause you're too young for that, but I think your father, I think the whole organization has seen them, right?
Vikram: Definitely, my father started the business, and that's kind of where it came back and when Industry 3.0 started, which was really right around 1968, that was the whole transformation of just getting automation implemented and getting data available, not necessarily forming it in Digital Transformation. And it's crazy, we have this really cool display case in our vendor file, a factory of the old PLCs, they were called the process control computers for welding controls for the automotives, and actually was Ford and that's actually where Uticor was born, out of a branch-out from Ford. But the PLCs, can't see my hands here, it's a full-on rack and it's a massive, massive device in comparison to what we are today, it's phenomenal because those devices are still in operation at some of the facilities, so it's just amazing how the transformation has had over the 50-plus years.
Don: Oh yeah, and when you think about it, in terms of functionality is unbelievable, in terms of size, like you're talking about, I remember giving talks, so I'd talk about the first computer, which was basically IBM made... What was it? It was supposed to be like 30 or 40 feet long. Eight feet wide, 10 feet high. And nowadays, you can buy yourself a greeting card with the song in it, and it's got more computing power than it existed in that thing in 1946, or whatever it was.
Vikram: It's amazing.
Don: It is amazing to see that evolution used to joke about saying you needed a trailer to carry your laptop in those first "laptop days".
Vikram: Year, size, processing speed and everything it's just... It's amazing. It always makes me wonder where we're gonna be in 50 to 100 years.
Don: Oh yeah, a good bridge statement to our topic of today: Digital Transformation. I appreciate the introduction of yourself because of the history that you have had as 1968 coming forward. So when you take a look at Digital Transformation, Industry 4.0 or whatever, how do you see it for us, the challenges that are there?
Vikram: Yeah, I would say the pandemic has somewhat helped a little bit because as people are trying to... As people are working remotely, people have become more open to it. However, there are quite a few challenges. People are always resistant to change. The model is, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? There's fear of the whole learning curve, it being too risky to make the whole Industry 4.0 challenge. Perception that plants just really need to completely retrofit or tear out their entire legacy systems and you still got plants out there on Blue Hose technology, Data Highway Plus, PLC5s and SLC 5/03 5/04, even the Uticor process control computers. So their fear is that, “Hey, I need to rip out everything in order and just reinvent my entire plant,” but people can take it in stages. There's fear of the costs involved, and you need to showcase the return on investment that the Digital Transformation provides, and then I guess I would say there's always OT versus IT right? Your operations guys versus your IT guys from a security standpoint, one focus on security, especially with this whole pipeline...
Vikram: Even though that's fairly recent, but it's really just a matter of educating people on the use of open protocols, let's say, how Arlen's and VP of IBM, I forgot the gentleman's name, but MQTT or using SQL databases or open things like, I don't know, OPC UA. So yeah. There is just a balance between the security and accessibility of data.
Don: Sure, sure. You hit on a lot of topics over that last 30 seconds there. Let's tease it apart a little bit and dig in. The subject of the Industrial Internet of Things. The transport protocols, the evolution from Industry 3.0, which your company has a history of, and Industry 4.0 and becoming a reality... How important is the IIoT world in that Digital Transformation evolution?
Vikram: Yeah, look, the integration of IIoT, the Industrial Internet of Things, essentially machine-to-machine communication using the whole smart technology, it's all crucial to make Industry 4.0 a reality, these are all integrated for increased automation, improved communications, self-monitoring. Basically, smart machines, using IoT technology, it allows you to analyze and diagnose the issues without any type of human intervention, it really reduces downtime, increases plant efficiency. But essentially, the concept of IIoT is extremely important in order to make Industry 4.0 a reality in the market.
Don: Sure, and you deal in the real world of making stuff, you have to make hardware is, like you said, your manufacturers are... Manufacturing doesn't occur remotely. Somebody's there building something. So from a hardware perspective, what are some of the pain points that you see organizations facing when they are trying to approach this Industry 4.0/Digital Transformation world.
Vikram: Yeah, no, definitely. That's a great question. So from a hardware standpoint, there is no doubt, first off, the use of legacy equipment, I mean there are tons of plants still out there, as I mentioned before, utilizing older... let us just take Rockwell PLC5s or SLC 5/03 or 5/04 processors. They're not on EtherNet, that they are on Blue Hose or older communication industrial network protocols. So one of the challenges to overcome, which fortunately, Uticor does very well with the Ignition Edge platform is integrating the two, being able to communicate with your existing technology as well as your future, integrating Data Highway Plus with EtherNet IP and MQTT and bridging the gap and support of the legacy protocols, DeviceNet, PROFIBUS, RIO with some of the newer protocols and the capabilities of Ignition Edge with Uticor hardware, that's a major perspective from a hardware standpoint.
Vikram: I would also say the implementation cost, a lot of people fear that the expense to purchase new hardware to rip out your entire system is very expensive, but again, if you find the appropriate hardware that can bridge the gap between your existing infrastructure with where you're going with Industry 4.0, in IIoT, such as with the Uticor and Ignition Edge Onboard platform, it allows you to mitigate or minimize that expense and kind of evolve from a transitional standpoint as opposed to all at once, and then finally, I guess there's not very many hardware manufacturers of automation control products and support, things have expanded over the past couple of years, I would say, but really not everybody has MQTT support, and a lot of these open protocols, things are starting to transform in the past couple of years, like I mentioned, but I know when Arlen approached us back in 2017, he said it would be great. There was Opto 22 and then there was... But he said I would like a full-fledged PLC, a cost-effective PLC that implements, be the first to do MQTT and Ignition Sparkplug B protocol. Are you interested? And I said, “Oh yeah, I am. Let's go for it.”
Don: Yeah, I think as far as early adopters, when you take a look at that conversation, and I know I sort of assume that everybody knows who Arlen Nipper is, but for the audience who doesn't, 'cause you mentioned his name, Arlen is President and CTO of a company called Cirrus Link Solutions. And with Andy Stanford Clark from IBM, Arlen did a project 22 years ago now, and developed that transport protocol MQTT, Message Queuing Telemetry Transport, and that is what you're referring to here, Vik. It's an incredibly important component, if you're going to try and realize the reality of Digital Transformation, the opportunities that are there, can you comment just maybe briefly on just when you think about focusing on hardware, focusing on software, you're mentioning hardware in the same context of software pieces that go with it and stuff, so is it an equal combination of both, when you look at Industry 4.0, how does that blend come together? And why is it important?
Vikram: Initially, I felt a whole bunch of Industry 4.0 was mostly focused on software, but as of recent, more hardware manufacturers are integrating IIoT capabilities, Industry 4.0 capabilities, it is important to have that combination of your hardware be able to take the existing control system and infrastructure of the plant and integrate that with the software that allows you to take that data, to take your Digital Transformation and provide it across the network and to multiple players. So initially, I believe it was a lot more software-focused and a lot more open-ended on PCs, but now you're seeing a lot more devices from not only PLCs and HMIs, but even sensors and what I call french-fry-type components, industrial automation, french-fry components, the axillary components that are all starting to implement from a hardware perspective as well.
Don: Sure, you know, I think Mike Milinkovich, who's the Executive Director of the Eclipse Foundation, which is where the Sparkplug specification for MQTT lives. They’re a working group that stewards that, that we at Inductive Automation participate in. And it's interesting, he made a comment at our ICC conference a couple years ago on a panel that software is gonna eat the industrial world. We sell software, so obviously that sounds fine, let's go for it. But you make a very important point. The reason we even started with Ignition Edge and the Onboard Program, I'm pleased to have Uticor as a core player, a core partner there, is because it takes a village as they say. No one of us has the full solution for that end user customer. Can you maybe say a little bit about the importance of Ignition Edge and one of the benefits of Ignition Edge with Uticor products?
Vikram: Yeah, that's a great question. So first off, like you said, the combination of hardware and software are crucial to make the whole Industry 4.0 a reality within the plant. So Ignition Edge, first of all, provides a cost-effective approach to getting the plant connected. The Edge panel on the Uticor panel PC or the Uticor hardware provides a full-blown hardware software HMI/SCADA platform that can again, connect to existing PLCs, whether it's on legacy protocols or even the newer ones. It allows a bridge between all the communication protocols and bridging the gap between IT and OT as a total cross-platform built on open-ended technologies or communication protocols, let's say, as I mentioned before like OPC UA or Python for example. So I would say from a hardware and software perspective, Uticor with Ignition Onboard, Ignition Edge Onboard, we provide a rugged, reliable, cost-effective, full-blown SCADA/HMI system at a very... Universally compatible with all the PLCs, I must say, and in particular with the Uticor and Ignition Edge panel you can get a, for example, a 15 inch HMI with unlimited tags, remote access capabilities, the whole IoT MQTT for $2500. It's a fraction of what some of the major players out there such as Rockwell Automation, Allen-Bradley, or Siemens charge. And so it's just a way of really getting access to some of the latest and greatest technology at very affordable price points.
Don: Which I think is really critical, that we're talking about getting the barrier to entry down as far as we possibly can for organizations to play in the game. I'm gonna shift a little bit to you as a company that manufactures and builds stuff. So as a manufacturer, when you take a look at AI and machine learning, can you elaborate a little bit on benefits you see when you go sensor-cloud and you get the data into the cloud and you come back again with machine learning, AI algorithms can be used to improve your organization, how do you take that as one who builds stuff and how do you get value from AI and machine learning?
Vikram: Yeah. So first off, AI is becoming... And all machine learning is becoming a lot more prevalent in just all facets of the world, not only in industrial automation, but essentially machine learning, AI, they analyze the performance of machines in the plant. They're able to diagnose issues immediately without human intervention, again, reducing downtime, improving plant efficiency, allowing the personnel to focus more on other tasks and more high-end tasks. So you're using your plant personnel more efficiently with the usage of machine learning and AI and it helps with preventative maintenance and overhead costs and just overall... If the machine learning and AI is essentially addressing something before it happens based upon previous historical data, you're actually doing preventative maintenance. It provides a full traceability of the entire manufacturing process so that the production data or in general production can be used in a lot more efficient manner.
Don: I think if they take that inside the organization, that's a very good, I think, analysis of how it can be used there and the benefits. Do the benefits of Industry 4.0 broadly... Do you see them extending beyond the walls of the organization? Do they extend out further and any comments on that?
Vikram: Yeah. So just you're talking about within the own plant itself, so I think it expands much further. It traces down to suppliers, the whole supply chain management. You get a full infrastructure of Digital Transformation where everything is being recorded. It makes the whole pipeline of manufacturing process much more efficient. You take for example this whole semiconductor shortage issue right now that's going on and the automotives are really struggling from that angle. If all these companies had better Digital Transformation, IoT implementation... There's still some automotive plants out there that have four different softwares and are manually recording barcodes or typing in barcode SKUs just to get inventory and what happens is production gets delayed because they don't have the appropriate parts or that they're missing something or they sometimes over-order. So yeah, it trickles down not just to the local plant itself from efficiency, but the whole infrastructure of the manufacturing process.
Don: Well, talking about the fact that some people... We look at oil and gas in areas where you see equipment... You mentioned automotive, but they got a 40-year-old... The brownfield world out there goes back a long ways in the world of hardware and machines. So if you look, maybe first of all, the next just... Not way out, but just 5-10 years, what industries or corresponding applications will be important as we try and really reap the benefits of Digital Transformation?
Vikram: Yeah. Definitely auto manufacturing. From an industry standpoint, the whole supply chain/inventory management, they really, really can benefit from Industry 4.0. We've run across situations, again, where a line is down because they just did not plan properly. Not proper communication, no information sent out to the appropriate personnel. You could save millions and millions of dollars annually if some of these manufacturers implement full-on Industry 4.0 Digital Transformation within their full tracking inventory system. So I think the first and foremost important industry is definitely automotive, but the whole concept of supply chain management, in my opinion, that becomes one of the most important benefits of Industry 4.0, and data and just trickling down to the whole group, so you don't have issues of delays and things like that.
Don: Sure. Before we actually started recording, we were chatting about the fact that I'm sitting here in my home office and haven't been on the road in 14 months and we both had worlds of travel in our life for long periods of time.
Don: So when you think about the last year-plus, the pandemic, and how it's affected organizations, we see it as a software company, and the fact that the Ignition platform is being utilized across industries — boy did it accelerate, from our perspective, the evolution of the industrial sector. What are your comments or thoughts on how the pandemic has affected organizations' plans or actions in Industry 4.0 initiatives?
Vikram: Yeah, definitely. So I think initially, when the pandemic started, just because there weren't personnel to implement it in the first couple of months and everyone was shocked, I mean, the whole industry itself kind of slowed down. However, once people started realizing, "Hey, this virus and the whole pandemic is here to stay and this is something that the way we work now is gonna transform forever." It's not just, once everyone gets vaccinated, everyone's gonna be going back to normal and work, there's going to be... You're gonna get this. People are finding it's a lot more efficient actually to work from home and to be able to cross-collaborate among various personnel. So I think it's actually ignited the whole Industry 4.0 and Digital Transformation concept that people are realizing, "Hey, we need to get onboard with this, we need to move forward, and we need to move forward fast otherwise we're gonna fall behind."
Vikram: And especially as everyone's working remotely and that's how the whole workforce is changing, it has skyrocketed that and people are really a lot more open to it and even the IT guys are understanding that, "Okay, well, now we, how do we overcome our issues of challenges in security to make sure that we get this 'cause we know that the data, we know that all of this has to be spread out and transformed to everybody." So I think it's accelerated the program.
Don: I know you mentioned this a little bit at the outset when we first started talking, you were introducing yourself but maybe you can elaborate a little bit more on your perspective on Digital Transformation some of the considerations maybe that organizations need to look at when they're approaching Industry 4.0 just to sort of maybe give our audience a little bit of your takeaway counsel on how they might approach it, what's the perspective, and what does that mean in terms of the opportunities that sit before people.
Vikram: Yeah. First off, it's important that companies get professional help. I mean with respect to trying to implement Industry 4.0, there's a lot of manufacturers, a lot of companies out there that are claiming that they're IIoT-compatible. It's critical for organizations and plants to really dig deep into the automation supplier or solution provider to really ensure that they know what they're talking about. I mean, 'cause there's a lot of people who will again just claim, "Hey, I'm IIoT ready, I'm 4.0 ready," but that just... I see that on literature all the time and when you ask them about it, what does it mean? They're not able to fully elaborate on what the benefits are and how their system actually gets implemented to make Industry 4.0 a success. Obviously, Ignition, Uticor and other Ignition Onboard partners, we go through rigorous training and verifications and we go through the process and understand how that works in Cirrus Link. It's important for customers to do their due diligence, select the right hardware, software package, get the proper support, and then make a smooth transition to this technology.
Vikram: It doesn't happen overnight, right? They could build a parallel infrastructure with their existing machines as they gradually transition to everything with Industry 4.0, so taking your legacy equipment, and then transforming into some of the new IIoT setup, go section by section, tackling one objective at a time, whether that's supply chain management that you're focused on or getting centralized data to improve efficiency as the manufacturing process gets more automated and more data comes out, calculate the ROI for each individual improvement that you're doing. So that would be my advice from implementing it and use open platforms again, make it flexible so that it's not tied to one particular protocol or something and that's why I love Ignition, it's just so open-ended with all its various protocols and flexibility so that you get a new engineer that comes in, it's easily transferable to them, so it's not just set on an old one specific communication protocol.
Don: You know you're not just selling hardware, you're trying to sell an idea to people to actually adopt a new approach to their business. I know 'cause we do it too, it's a big challenge. As you look at this, can you share maybe to the hesitant person, the person that says manufacturing moves slower, it's different, it's never going to fully adopt Digital Transformation. Can you say a couple of things that might say, and I think you did a little bit by low-hanging fruit, incremental approach. Can you say something that might make that person who's a little hesitant say, "You know, I might take a second look. I should start the journey." Just anything that might be sort of some advice to that person listening in that goes, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I gotta keep this plant running, I don't have time for initiatives like that." How do you get 'em moving?
Vikram: And that’s what I'm saying, look, everyone knows that machine downtime is the number one critical thing. I mean there are plants all day where 24/7 that they will not shut down or anything but it's really important to integrate, like you said, parallel operation, step by step, do things while... Yes, first and foremost, plant operation and uptime and building your products is number one, but that does not mean you can't start taking the data and transforming that out and taking Digital Transformation concepts. So again, you don't have to rip out your entire control system. I know one of our features that we implement on a lot of our systems and HMIs and we couple it with our hardware, and of course, Ignition is being able to make changes on the fly, doing online editing, right? So you don't need to shut down your entire process for machines by getting the Industry 4.0 and implementing some of this data collection out there. You do it slowly, not too slowly that it doesn't ever happen. But it's increment, step by step, run it in parallel, build a structure on top of another structure without breaking your piggy bank.
Vikram: There isn't a time-effective and cost-effective solution to be able to get it without having to disrupt manufacturing process. And really, the most important thing is, once you take that leap of faith and realize how important it is, you're gonna realize that your manufacturing process, your whole implementation of your, just the whole efficiency is gonna improve so much that your return on investment is so easily, you can calculate it just by saying, "Wow, I just went from 70 trucks in this hour to 120 trucks." Just because by, you're being more efficient. So it's gonna pay for itself. There's no doubt about that.
Don: Totally appreciate that. You know, we covered a lot of ground in the last half hour, I wanna give you maybe one last chance to share anything that you might want to with the audience. I appreciate so much, you taking the time to come because you bring such a depth and your organization's history being such a depth of understanding of where we've been to get some perspective on where we're going, but any final thoughts you wanna share with the audience before we wrap up today's discussion?
Vikram: Yeah, I think it's maybe two quick thoughts, one is specific to Digital Transformation. I think it's important, first off, everyone understands the difference between all these terminologies because a lot of people go out and just talk about IoT or Industry 4.0 and Digital Transformation. I think it's important to understand what all these terms mean, so I'll quickly run through that if that's alright and then kinda just give a general comment if that works with you Don.
Vikram: So first off, Industry 4.0 is a new movement, right? You had Industry 3.0, which started in '68, where that essentially was the creation of automation, automating the production lines, using computers and electronics with the invention of the PLC, for example. And now with Industry 4.0, it's a matter of taking the automation, taking the data from the automation and transforming it into information, useful information to increase plant efficiency. Then you got the word Digital Transformation, which is really a mechanism to turn the data into that information, right? So it's essentially the digitization of a business. So you're taking old-school paper, handwritten notes of, "Hey, this is what I produced before," and unifying all that data in real-time, so there's no more meetings of, "What's last week's production rate?" Right?
Vikram: And then the final, the last point of IIoT, the Industrial Internet of Things, first off, your last question kind of asked about people's hesitation somewhat of getting into IIoT? What people should realize is, IoT is there every day. You take our cell phones, for example, that's a concept of IoT, it's taking the data from the network, the structure out there and providing the information to all of us. We track our health from these phones, we make phone calls, I track my kids. There's so much you could do with the cell phone, and really, there should not be a hesitation 'cause we're doing it in our day-to-day lives, the IIoT factor, just from the industrial aspect of it.
Vikram: So I would just say as a final comment, everyone should take that leap of faith, listen to professionals who know what they're talking about, the Ignition folks, of course, coupled with the Uticor hardware, we're here to help and improve your plant efficiency and hope it becomes a win-win for everybody.
Don: Vikram, totally appreciate your time today. Thanks so much for your comments, for your insight, sharing with our audience and we are wrapping it up here. Have a great afternoon.
Vikram: Thank you Don very much, I appreciate your time as well, and Joanna, for setting this all up, and the whole Ignition team or Inductive team behind this, and yeah, I look forward to doing it again one day.