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Smart machines: transforming data into action

02 February 2018

Smart manufacturing is developing momentum. Many machine builders and their end customers are beginning to put the foundation in place that will enable them to benefit from the intelligence machines can bring.

With “smartness” constantly in the headlines, it can be confusing for customers to make the right decisions concerning the type of equipment that will enable them to improve and future-proof their manufacturing operations. One of the most reliable sources of information and assistance for many firms is, of course, their trusted equipment and machine builders.

OEMs were among the first to grasp the importance of smart manufacturing and the sweeping changes it could make to their customers’ business, as well as their own. As standard-bearers for innovation, many of them are already introducing their second and third generations of smart machines – each incorporating even more advanced technology than the last. It’s worth taking a closer look at how OEMs build intelligence into their products and how doing so contributes to smart manufacturing initiatives.

How does manufacturing become smart?

Broadly speaking, production operations can be considered as smart when they are integrated with IT operations. This integration, which Rockwell Automation calls the Connected Enterprise, enables staff, equipment and overarching business systems to capture, share and analyse data in real time. 

All the systems are based on a single, open network architecture that helps accelerate processes and decision-making, allowing managers to quickly make any adjustments necessary. In some cases, the machines that are based on this architecture can make the adjustments themselves, which helps reduce and predict maintenance, reduces downtime and accelerates the production cycle. In addition to connectivity, smart manufacturing also encompasses the use of analytics and cloud technologies. Simply collecting data is clearly insufficient – it needs to be transformed into actionable insight to be of real benefit to the business. Even more value and new revenue streams can also be developed as the data becomes a larger part of the information ecosystem.

Intelligence built in to machines and equipment

Successful OEMs are building machines and equipment with embedded intelligence that leverages the connectivity provided by an open network architecture. This machine then fits into knowledge-driven production processes that enable manufacturers to use data collected by sensors and control systems in order to fine-tune productivity and performance. For example, managers can examine every aspect of production workflow in real time, enabling them to streamline processes or predict equipment failure. Rockwell Automation research has shown that this can increase overall equipment effectiveness by significant percentages. Another example concerns quality. If sensors on the production line can be programmed to carry out quality checks on products passing through, companies can decrease the reject rate. This clearly could translate into huge monthly savings. 

Analytics delivering business value

Adding analytics solutions to smart machines delivers an even higher level of value to the entire business. So how can companies use them? A simple way to start is with maintenance analytics, which help optimise a machine’s uptime and performance. On the next level, multi-line or multi-plant analytics can deliver real-time updates to operators and identify trends through comparison. They are also useful for OEMs, enabling them to offer customers remote monitoring services to keep the machine up and running. On a more complex level, companies can implement analytics globally to help ensure compliance at all their production sites by integrating production analytics with business-intelligence tools. When these analytics solutions are cloud-based, OEMs can remotely access the data generated by their machines at the customer site. Rockwell Automation recently launched a Microsoft Azure cloud-enabled capability to do this – FactoryTalk Analytics for Machines. This cloud application gives equipment builders access to performance analytics from deployed machines to support their customers via the FactoryTalk cloud. For manufacturers, the application helps drive higher availability and output while reducing maintenance costs. 

Cama Group: intelligent machine wins award

One OEM that provides a good example of a smart machine is the Italian packaging machine builder Cama Group. The company’s new IF318 Robotised Monoblock Loading Unit, which was shown at last year’s Hannover Fair, incorporates many innovative features, including cabinet-free technology, ergonomics and ease of use. Using the FactoryTalk Analytics for Machines application, along with an Allen-Bradley CompactLogix 5480 controller with Windows 10 IoT, the IF318 relays critical KPI data via the Microsoft Azure cloud. This gives users access to real-time production insights. The new Cama machine also integrates the Rockwell Automation iTRAK intelligent track system. For OEMs, iTRAK facilitates the design and construction of track-based solutions for packaging and material handling. By combining linear and rotary motion, it helps machine designers achieve the increased handling efficiency and throughput. For the Cama IF318, iTRAK allows each operating station to work independently of the others, giving operators the flexibility to choose a specific quantity and size of cartons at each of the three machine stations: forming, loading and closing. With its IF318, Cama Group was the overall winner of the Best Future Machine Award at the interpack 2017 tradeshow. This had been initiated by Rockwell Automation to highlight and reward outstanding machine technology and celebrate creativity and innovation within the packaging industry.

Conclusion: making intelligent use of data

In summary, smart machines generate a lot of data – but this has little value unless it is analysed and shared collaboratively. Analytics and cloud-based solutions, working with smart equipment, can facilitate maintenance operations for OEMs and deliver unprecedented levels of efficiency and productivity for manufacturers. 

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