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Modern drives: it's all about getting connected

13 November 2015

Rather than being viewed as a simple commodity, today’s integrated drive can help reduce costs, optimise operational efficiencies and maximise productivity. Andy Hodgson reports.

Industry 4.0 is a concept introduced more than four years ago at the Hannover Fair and one that is increasingly influencing thinking across the manufacturing landscape as future planning turns to consider the challenges of the coming decades.

The term refers to the journey towards self-organising manufacturing operations and a greater distribution of intelligence towards individual machines and components.  Production lines will reconfigure themselves to optimise productivity in response to amended production orders, while in other cases changes will be driven by the product itself as it communicates with the production line to gauge the optimum route through the process.  It is a manufacturing future that previous generations could only have dreamt about.

Much of this technological progress hints at the ‘smart factory’ of the future, and a manufacturing environment that we are told will operate using higher levels of autonomy through distributed decision-making.  The higher levels of distributed  intelligence is possible through the use of miniaturised processors, storage units, sensors and transmitters embedded in all conceivable types of machines, unfinished products and materials, as well as smart tools and new software for structuring data flow. Indeed, embedded technology is a key component of Industry 4.0, and ‘big data’ will fuel the connectivity and information flow between machines and the wider production environment.

Industry 4.0 is not some distant target; its advantages are already here today, and none more so than in the world of drive technology.

A number of years ago industry experts speculated that it will not be the technology of a drive that will influence its future, it will instead be the end user added value it can deliver by way of support. Today, the versatility of drive technology means they can be deployed in ever more complex applications.  It turns the focus away from a pure technological perspective and more towards customer application need and a market demand for results.  Increasingly, users of drive technologies are looking at the drive as an integral component of a complete control system – and one that can offer communication and intelligence benefits.

In my view, the modern drive can be likened to a smart phone; the latter obviously performs the primary and simple task of facilitating a call, and for many people they remain a mere everyday commodity – no more, no less. But mobile telephony devices have also evolved into what can accurately be described as ‘mini-computers’.  They possess outlandish processing power relative to their size and have a seemingly limitless potential in terms of what downloadable app technology will allow the user to do. Owners can access huge data files on the move, track a person’s whereabouts, take stunning photographs, diagnose medical conditions or even identify the stars in the night sky.

This description could also apply to drives. For some, they remain as they have been for decades past, a commodity performing a simple function within a manufacturing environment and whose influence is limited and importance somewhat diminished. I would suggest otherwise. As drive technology has advanced, and communication, integration and intelligence become the key to delivering effective and efficient manufacturing processes, so it is important to recognise the value added customer benefits that drives can offer today.

The Siemens approach
These benefits are illustrated by Siemens’ Integrated Drive Systems (IDS) market offering, which I suggest delivers a new perspective on drive technology.  With an over-arching concept to turn common drive components into an integrated system, IDS ensures maximum productivity, energy-efficiency and reliability within an automation environment and an ability to cover all torque ranges, performance classes and voltage specifications. 

Integrating the products (frequency converters, motors, and so on) with data communication and intelligence platforms located in Siemens’ Totally Integrated Automation (TIA) Portal, meets the primary objectives of Industry 4.0. This connectivity brings together product performance and transparent and easy access to essential data, enabling production management to make informed decisions about day-to-day operations. 

A good illustration of this is provided by the drive system modernisation work Siemens carried out for Liverpool-based printing firm, Pronovis, who were seeking power efficiency improvements at their energy-intensive printing plant on Merseyside. Part of the work included the integration of 18 variable speed drives - used to control the speed of motors in the drying hoods - with Siemens’ TIA SCADA system. This has provided Prinovis with far greater visibility and control over the drying hood system and performance. The management team can access improved diagnostic intelligence and enhanced levels of data which they use to inform important operational decisions around productivity and preventative maintenance strategies.

There are numerous other value-added benefits smart drive applications can offer today’s manufacturing community.  Reliability enhancements are possible through drive component self-diagnosis to enable preventative measures to be taken to avoid unplanned stoppages. Manufacturers can also apply new drive technology in areas where more conventional methods may have dominated, such as the replacement of pneumatics with dynamic servo drives. And in terms of operator safety - particularly where humans and robots need to operate within the same working environment - integrated drives have an important role to play.

Automation has progressed well beyond the simple control of machines, infrastructure and production processes.  Its next steps are all about flexibility – rapidly adjusting machinery and plants to accommodate new products or switching lines speedily to meet market demand. 

Many of the technologies needed to drive the concept of Industry 4.0 exist.  They include the Internet, industrial Ethernet, simulation software (including products that can simulate a drive system before capital investment) and rapid centralised engineering tools like Siemens’ TIA Portal to integrate all of the automation and drive components via open interfaces. Security, safety, engineering, data management and communication are all central topics underpinning the long-term objectives of integration, which will ultimately satisfy industry’s demand for flexible manufacturing.

So, the modern drive is not merely a commodity, but an intelligent component of factory automation that will have a big role to play as Industry 4.0 rolls out across the manufacturing landscape.

Andy Hodgson is general manager, motion control, digital factory, Siemens UK & Ireland


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