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Where is automation taking our machines of the future?

Author : Dave Sutton is Product Marketing Manager at Schneider Electric.

09 September 2016

The global IoT market is set to grow to $1.7 trillion by 2020. This shift is opening up new doors of opportunity for manufacturers to embrace a new era, where they exploit the data gathered from interconnected devices to improve day-to-day performance.

Working in the industrial automation and manufacturing fields, whether in management or at plants, it’s now difficult to avoid buzzwords such as The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0. The explosion in domestic IoT applications, such as smartphones, wearables and even fridges is a key driver for this, but surely there is more to it than the surrounding hype? 

What impact will IIoT have on manufacturing? 

It is clear that in order to remain competitive on the ground, industry the world over needs to understand the potential that IIoT holds, as well as the risks of moving too slowly. The IIoT provides significant transformation potential for industrial organisations, offering a means to increase the value they derive from modern IIoT open standards based automation technologies. 

The IIoT is a world where smart connected products and systems operate as part of larger, more responsive and agile information infrastructure. Improvements in efficiency and profitability, increased cybersecurity and innovation, and better management of safety, performance and environmental impact are just some of the benefits of an IIoT-enabled industrial environment. Industry 4.0, or Digital Manufacturing (as the UK Government call it) is the overarching blueprint for the fourth industrial revolution that encompasses autonomous operational systems and business systems, enabling engineers to deliver increased supply chain flexibility, greater product customisation and shorter lead times. Of course, the cloud underpins this success, offering greater agility and scalability, tighter collaboration with suppliers and the capacity to adapt environments in response to fluctuating market demands.

Evolution of the industry

IIoT is often presented as a revolution that is changing the face of industry in a profound manner. Especially for operational engineers. In reality, it is an evolution that has its origins in technologies and functionalities developed by visionary automation suppliers more than 15 years ago. 

As the necessary global standards mature, it may well take another 15 years to realise the full potential of IIoT. The good news for engineers and machine builders today is that they can leverage their existing investments in technology and people while taking advantage of new IIoT technologies. Introducing IIoT solutions alongside existing applications, as opposed to a “rip & replace” approach will enable greater day-to-day and business control, and will drive the evolution towards a smart manufacturing plant that is more efficient, safer, and sustainable. 

Now more than ever

IIoT is already having a significant impact on plant performance in two primary areas: asset performance management and operator efficiency.

We can see this in the likes of increased deployment of open Ethernet based technologies, wireless technologies, cloud connectivity, low cost sensors, the use of advanced data analytics, and new generation control systems capable of handling heightened demands for connectivity and “Big Data” management. These technologies, previously limited by the cost of connection or implementation, are enabling the gathering of asset information that supports maintenance programs and decision systems for manufacturing and engineering. That means that unnecessary “routine” maintenance can be avoided, as can the neglect of equipment that subsequently fails. 

With the increasing external challenges manufacturers face, including the security implications of the supply chain, cloud support in particular is critical. External access to systems by suppliers can become a significant painpoint. By adopting a hybrid approach, industry businesses can shift the security context away from the internal network to a carefully controlled external perimeter that is appropriate for suppliers to access. 

For managers and engineers in particular this enables the freedom needed to ensure grant direct supplier access and facilitate collaboration with third parties with ease, allowing for quicker response times, a more agile network and a platform for reduced overall inventory. 

In many industries today, there are fewer skilled operators inside the plant as the older, expert workforce moves into retirement. IIoT presents a great opportunity to bridge this gap and augment today’s workforce by putting real-time status and diagnostic information at their fingertips. It can also make it simple to enable mobile phones to scan dynamic QR code error messages for rapid troubleshooting. Other examples include the use of smart tablets and industrial automation apps, all of which are providing simpler, easier to use, richer information to the operator, and making the plant user-centric, not machine-centric.

The convergence of IT and OT

Talk around the IIoT has centred mainly on the technology element, which is already gaining acceptance and delivering business improvements. However, these technologies present greater opportunities for smarter manufacturing and the potential to remove constraints imposed by legacy technologies on automation systems in particular.

We are going to see further deployment of Open Ethernet technologies across both the manufacturing and device level, as developments around IIoT continue. The Operational Technology of the factory floor will become increasingly integrated with the Information Technology of upstream business systems (IT meets OT). 

Architectures will become flattened, and with these new levels of agility, automation systems will perfectly match industrial process topologies, simplifying the application and operation of both. IIoT will also allow automation applications to be aligned to the process, independently of the automation hardware. Tightly integrated systems will distribute the application transparently to the hardware, configuring all communication mechanisms automatically, and allowing the connected devices to publish important information in a standardised format.

Intelligent brokers will make this information available in a transparent manner to the systems and applications that require it.

Schneider Electric can advise on the practical steps you can take to evolve your manufacturing facilities towards the IIoT enabled Factory of the Future -

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