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Bringing smart factory automation to your plant

As the period between successive revolutions shrinks, the pressure is on engineers to keep up with digital innovation. Image: JMartans automation

Jonathan Grech explains the considerations that engineers should make when embarking on IoT initiatives

We’re currently in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution; the age of cyberphysical systems, the Internet of Things (IoT) and cognitive computing. 

As the period between successive revolutions shrinks, the pressure is on engineers to keep up with digital innovation.

From the First Industrial Revolution that came about in the late Eighteenth Century to the Fourth that started less than a decade ago, each one has lasted, on average, just over 50 years. 

At first glance, this seems like plenty of time for engineers to familiarise themselves with the latest innovations before introducing them.

However, when you consider that change during pre-industrial societies spanned many hundreds, if not thousands, of years — take the Chinese Dynasties, for example — and were fostered by broader reforms in the fields of scientific theory, infrastructure, politics and sociodemographic upheaval, it’s easy to see the scale of the challenge that today’s engineers face.

Perhaps the biggest challenge lies in the factory of the future and industrial automation environments. 

Not only is customer behaviour driving manufacturers to offer greater diversity in their product ranges, a greater number of players in the marketplace is forcing companies to seek out marginal gains in the race to remain competitive.

If manufacturers want to ensure they introduce smooth and sustained digital transformation, there are three key areas they should address. Let’s look at what these are and how they can help plant managers and engineers stay ahead of the game.

Manage component obsolescence

The first is your approach to managing obsolescence. As product development lifecycles become shorter and shorter, so too are the rates at which new equipment is becoming obsolete. 

Whether that means your motor is no longer compatible with a new wireless standard or your control system ceases to be compatible with the latest round of software protocols, if you don’t take remedial action, you’ll be left behind.

There are two options to manage product obsolescence: overhaul your entire system with new equipment every few years — not a feasible option for the vast majority of manufacturers — or take a preventative maintenance approach, selectively replacing and upgrading equipment incrementally to retrofit your legacy devices with digital connectivity.

To make this transition as hassle free as possible, many manufacturers in this situation prefer to partner with a smart systems integrator such as JMartans. We provide a suite of spare parts, with a catalogue covering everything from automation and HVAC to measurement and sensors. What’s more, we provide a full automation service that can help you not only design and build your installation, but also programme and integrate the latest control system.

Choose scalable platforms

One of the biggest barriers to growth for manufacturers has traditionally been scalability. 

Not being able to easily add capacity for higher throughput and better economies of scale is a limiting factor for businesses looking to achieve their growth targets.

One answer to this conundrum is to use modular automation platforms. 

Currently, plants are designed and built to produce or process a single product on a large scale, or a limited number of products on a batch scale. If the business decides to diversify its product offering or market segment, it may struggle to achieve this with the current setup.

Modular automation hopes to move plants away from centralised master controllers towards distributed modules or subsystems, each with their own intelligence. These modular systems can then be pre-automated and added together like building blocks using a plug-and-play architecture that allows production to be scaled up and down quickly and easily depending on market conditions.

Imagine, for example, a pharmaceutical manufacturer being able to combine multiple modules, each with their own pumping, filtration and clean-in-place functionality to ramp up volumes as and when required.

Use data in useful and interesting ways

As the number of IoT sensors in industry grows — the market, made up of some 7bn devices, was worth $151bn in 2018 and is expected to grow to $1567bn by 2025 — it’s important that users not only make use of the added connectivity, but also the high volumes of data generated.

While many smart sensors can now transmit real-time granular data for variables such as vibration, bearing condition, pressure, temperature and time-to-service, this data can be used in more sophisticated ways to create real-time replicas and future projections of a plant.

That might mean creating a digital twin of the factory, using virtual commissioning to optimise the roll-out of industrial robots or even using the remote access to allow engineers to troubleshoot problems virtually from anywhere in the world.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution heats up, manufacturers should take the right steps to digitalise, taking advantage of the latest and greatest smart digital technologies. The race is on to innovate, how will you fare?

Jonathan Grech is managing director of smart factory automation supplier JMartans automation.

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