Ball bearing maker partners with Rockwell for Industry 4.0 digital overhaul

A ball bearing manufacturer in India is undergoing a digital transformation at five plants to connect 300 machines to a single network, a process involving intense collaboration between IT and OT teams. (Getty Images)

Digital transformation has been an imperative for the manufacturing sector for a while, but the COVID-19 pandemic amplified the need due to supply chain disruptions, shifting market demand and other threats to business continuity.

More than anything, manufacturers are seeking better visibility, alignment and automation in production systems to enable the kind of real-time insights and agile decision making at scale necessary to quickly adapt to these shifting conditions.

These were among the motivations for an Industry 4.0 implementation by global ball bearing manufacturer National Engineering Industries, Ltd. (NEI) to connect hundreds of Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines and Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) to a single IIoT network.

 Success hinged on close alignment between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) personnel, and an overall emphasis on the collaborative workforce dynamics that go into a successful transformation.

A Critical Need for Real-Time Insight for Decision Making

NEI is part of the CK Birla Group, a $1.6 billion company with 20,000 employees at 24 manufacturing sites worldwide. It operates five facilities to manufacture different types of bearings found in rotating equipment or machinery. The company has developed a reputation for quality and reliability over its 75-year history as India’s largest bearing manufacturer, with many trusted customer relationships to preserve. NEI needed a transformation approach to enhance quality and capacity with minimum disruption to production and distribution to the many clients who rely on the company’s products.

NEI needed to build capabilities for real-time data, reports and dashboards to be available to decision makers across the enterprise, from the shop floor to the top floor. The previous status quo was unacceptable: At various stages of the production process, data was recorded in data sheets and collated at the end of a shift; the data was captured on paper and logged into a non-real time system.

The unfortunate result of this system was a 24-hour delay in data being made available for manufacturing insights and decision making. This meant plant personnel were, in essence, looking at yesterday’s data to make today’s decisions, giving up significant visibility for proactive insights that could help anticipate equipment failure and guide predictive maintenance.

Essential IT and OT Coordination

NEI realized it needed a better approach for enhanced plant-floor decision making, predictive maintenance and overall equipment efficiency (OEE). And they realized this Industry 4.0 solution to enable real-time data analysis required strong teamwork across IT and OT teams.

To replace the paper logs and non-real-time systems, the company developed a digital strategy to connect more than 300 CNC machines and PLCs to a single IIoT network. As such, this required intense collaboration between both IT teams (whose focus was hardware, networking and connectivity) and OT teams (who dealt with machine data and machine software.)

Working in tandem, the two teams were tasked to harmonize operations across a diverse set of controllers – of various generations, makes and models – for an OPC Unified Architecture data layer and IoT Platform deployment. This connected digital system is what enables real-time insights, rendered with dynamic reports and visualizations for decision support, to get into the hands of key personnel and stakeholders, from the C-suite to the front lines of production.

Clinching Success with Cross-Collaboration

The efforts to align IT and OT teams were a focal point in a larger mandate to optimize change management and workforce culture dynamics for the transformation effort. Collaboration roles were formalized, and the project was also part of team members’ Key Responsibility Areas (KRAs) and objectives for the year. Throughout, domain experts from across the company were consulted on the technical, functional and business aspects of the project.

Working together, these cross-disciplinary teams aligned on data standards and architecture design to translate business and operational requirements into implementation plans to be carried out with Rockwell Automation and other strategic partners. The focus of Rockwell Automation was an agnostic solution to bring all machines on the same IIoT platform, a demanding task given the range of earlier generation controllers and equipment involved. IoT platform experts also built machine data visualization layers to aid collaborative decision-making across the organization.

This highly-collaborative transformation paid off with clear progress toward a stretch goal of factory OEE of 2-3% above the already high-average baselines of 78-80%. The transformation continues to roll out at all five NEI facilities, with one factory – a highly-automated plant in Jaipur – already at full scale implementation. The remaining four plants are slated to be in real-time data and application mode within the next eight months.


The NEI transformation offers a use case for how cross-disciplinary teaming, especially with IT/OT personnel, and transparent collaboration among many stakeholders can enhance the transformation journey for manufacturers. It’s a journey NEI is still undertaking and benefiting from in the form of more real-time insights and agile decision making for more efficient, proactive operations at scale.

Shubham Garg is  Automotive Industry Manager at Rockwell Automation.