Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Connected factory solutions to today’s problems

May 15, 2023
By Sukanya Ray Ghosh

Connected factory technologies offer comprehensive solutions to address critical challenges in manufacturing

PHOTO: NanoStockk / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

In the increasingly data-driven and data-ruled world of today, leveraging the right pieces of data can define the level of success for every manufacturer. Connected factory technologies available today can equip manufacturers with just the right amount of information to make the key decisions for optimizing and growing their businesses. With significant advancements in the technologies themselves in recent years, the end-users are now aware of what to implement to reap more rewards.

Bob van den Berg, managing director at Murrelektronik Canada shares that manufacturers are currently requesting solutions that are scalable, modular and have the ability to connect to the cloud at some point.

“Many manufacturers think they need to do something with IIoT or Industry 4.0 but they haven’t really defined what that is yet. So, the ability to be able to do that at a future time is extremely important. If they need to increase or add functions to the machine, they should be able to do that,” he says.

Robotics, Industry 4.0, IIOT, artificial intelligence, machine learning and cybersecurity solutions are all in high demand. The specific asks vary according to the type of factory and the processes they run.


Robert Almeida, business development manager at Advanced Motion & Controls further adds that wireless technology is starting to take a firmer hold, whether it be within the footprint of a particular machine (for example, a pneumatic valve manifold communicating wirelessly to the PLC) or throughout the manufacturing facility as a whole (example: calling for parts using AMRs or vibration/temperature sensors communicating data into a cloud data service).  IO-Link is another technology that is taking root (RA-02162023).

“What these have in common is simplicity and speed of deployment. Cutting the cord and going wireless eliminates the need for time-consuming wiring, which is subject to mistakes resulting in troubleshooting,” explains Almeida.

Needs of the factory floor

The connected factory technologies of today are designed to achieve a number of goals on the factory floor.

Increased efficiency and productivity, improved quality control, better decision making, predictive maintenance and improved safety are some of the broad objectives that manufacturers target with these technologies, shares Warren Osak, CEO of Electromate.

The data collected from the technologies of today are actively used to analyze processes, and predict failing machine components or issues before it actually stops functioning.

Arshdeep Singh from Black Controls shares that remote accessibility has become a big part of every modern system for customer and OEM support. Cloud/ web-based HMIs are also being used increasingly due to their low cost and flexibility to display information that is not necessarily directly related to the machine they are situated at.

Reaping rewards with right implementation

Not every technology is suitable for every factory floor. To obtain the best results, it is essential to identify the specific issues that the manufacturer wishes to address.

Distributed IO provides a good example, according to Almeida. “There are many options to choose from, but which one to choose depends on the particular scenario.  Where pneumatics are concerned it makes sense to use IO integrated on the manifold as oftentimes the actuators and sensors are located in close proximity to the valve manifold. Those sensors are connected to the IO blocks via M8 or M12 connections, then a single network cable is run back to a switch or the valve manifold communicates wirelessly back to the PLC.  This makes deployment more efficient and keeps the technology under a single platform to minimize the need to manage handshakes between differing technologies from different manufacturers,” he explains.

Another example, he shares is technologies that overlay over existing legacy equipment already deployed onto the factory floor. “These technologies make older equipment Industry 4.0 ready without disrupting or redesigning the existing equipment. You use the same sensors, controllers and same PLC code. This overlay technology is connected in parallel and translates the existing signals into data formatted for enhanced use.  This data is now used to measure and track the health of the equipment, providing similar visibility to what you would expect from a newer piece of automation.”

When making a choice, examples of successful implementation can offer better clarity regarding expectations.

Bon van den Berg shares an example of a manufacturer customer that achieved success with the right technology choice. “We had a customer with a part washing machine that had 32 sections. Depending on what parts they were washing, they needed to bring certain sections of the machine in and out. We were able to show them through one connection point to a PLC, how to be able to do that. If they need to remove a module from the machine, they can resection it. If they need to reattach it, they can. We also eliminated the need for them to use analog cards and devices, converting them over to IO-link for measuring devices. That allowed them then to simply connect and then replace these devices if they needed to as well. Overall savings for the customer was 25 percent in costs and 30 percent in installation labour.”

Manufacturers often have legacy systems on their plant floors. Replacing such equipment completely is a highly expensive and time-consuming process. This consideration often deters them from adding new technologies.

“While modern sensors come with advanced IoT capabilities, not everything needs to be upgraded on legacy systems to start introducing connected factories,” says Singh. “Even with older hardware (PLCs), new sensing can be added that works with the legacy PLC and also has IoT capabilities. Connected factories can also simply start by adding a remote access device like an Ewon Industrial Gateway. Having remote access setup to your system allows for many capabilities including remote troubleshooting and diagnostics of devices like PLCs, HMIs, VFDs, servos, vision systems and sensors.”

He further adds that new technologies like AMRs can be integrated into older factories with legacy equipment with minimal impact. Black Controls, for example, assesses a production facility’s current state and provides a road map to implementing technologies like remote monitoring and AMRs.

Get more for less

As technology investments can be quite expensive, manufacturers expect to maximize ROI on every solution they implement. Osak suggests the following tips that will help them achieve that goal.

  • Streamline operations: By improving processes, reducing waste and increasing efficiency, manufacturers can produce more with fewer resources.
  • Invest in technology: Implementing technology such as automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning can help manufacturers increase productivity, reduce errors and improve quality.
  • Utilize data analytics: Collecting and analyzing data on operations, customer behaviour and market trends can help manufacturers make informed decisions about production and reduce waste.
  • Collaborate with suppliers: Building strong relationships with suppliers and working together to reduce waste and improve supply chain efficiencies can help manufacturers get more for less.

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