TOP 5 IN 2006: Industrial automation technologies that will make a difference

Wednesday January 25, 2006
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Manufacturers strive to produce better products, cheaper and faster than their competitors. More companies implement automation to boost output and quality. But with the vast amount of technologies available, it can be a daunting task to identify the leading technologies that will truly make a difference on the plant floor. We asked five experts to list what they consider to be the top industrial automation technologies or trends that will make a difference in 2006 and beyond. A big thank you to Jim Pinto, Don Mahony, Rudy Poseika, Trevor Jones and Sal Spada for sharing their insights. Jim Pinto's top five Jim Pinto is an industry analyst, commentator, writer, technology entrepreneur, investor and futurist. You can read excerpts from his book, Pinto's Points - How to Win in the Automation Business, at www.jimpinto.com/writings/points.html. 1. The networked factory: The vision of fully automated factories has existed for some time now: customers order online, with electronic transactions that negotiate batch size, price and colour, while intelligent robots and sophisticated machines fabricate a variety of customized products on demand. The promise of remote-controlled automation is finally making headway in manufacturing. Today, this is purely a matter of networked intelligence. Ethernet is everywhere, and everything is networked. All segments of manufacturing will start to interact in ways that were previously unthinkable. It's about getting information in and out quickly, monitoring the business as it happens, and making quick, effective, agile decisions. 2. Wireless networks: Wireless connectivity is already wide-spread in office and consumer environments, and manufacturing will move quickly to take advantage of the overwhelming benefits. More production personnel, portable equipment and processes will be networked than ever before. A variety of technology choices are available - Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee. In 2006, expect to see these wireless networks throughout the factory floor. 3. Robots: In the last decade, the performance of robots has increased dramatically while prices have plummeted. In North America, the price of robots relative to labour costs has fallen significantly, as low as 12:1, if quality improvements are taken into consideration. As robot intelligence increases, and as sensors, actuators and operating mechanisms become more sophisticated, manufacturing automation applications will continue to multiply. 4. Machine-to-machine communications (M2M): For complex manufacturing equipment, M2M communications will track operating and usage patterns, providing production analysis and predictive maintenance. When breakdowns occur, the equipment itself will provide immediate feedback for rapid diagnostics and proactive service. Equipment manufacturers will be using M2M-connected products to develop super-efficient service relationships and reduce the hassles of equipment ownership. 5. Enterprise collaboration software: More people are working together in distributed, cross-organizational teams, across distances, time zones and conventional company borders. Team members are available from anywhere, at any time, through collaboration software suites. Desktop and intranet search and data mining solutions will allow companies to use more of the knowledge that previously was left untapped in information archives. Collaborating companies will grow smarter and add more value as they refine and reuse their knowledge. Rudy Poseika's top five Rudy Poseika is the manager of technical support for Richmond Hill, Ont.-based automation software provider CB Automation Inc., a sister company to CB Engineering. 1. Microsoft .Net technology: The implementation of .Net in the software environment should increase the reliability and security of software offerings. The technology provides the infrastructure for different applications to share data, and it has the ability to automatically update newer versions of itself. Existing applications can be re-worked to be .Net applications, but these may not be able to take advantage of all of the technology's benefits. There are also other infrastructures that can accomplish the same tasks via Java and network protocol homegrown solutions. 2. Portal: Information processing and summary viewing on the plant floor still have issues providing the big picture. Various Scada, PLCs and instrumentation can now communicate with each other, but when corporate databases become involved, and connections to suppliers and customer systems are required, it can be a difficult implementation task. Web services provide information, such as electricity prices or weather data, allowing the different systems access to more timely information. This becomes a "portal" solution for use in manufacturing environments. Portals are used for customer relationship management solutions, finance, sales automation, as well as on the plant floor. The portal viewer can reside on the present infrastructure of computers with existing Scada, hand-held devices or "tablet" devices. 3. Radio frequency identification (RFID): There has been some press about the "big brother" aspect of RFID, but the benefit in manufacturing is being recognized more and more. Placing RFID tags on pallets, cartons and individual items increases traceability and information flow in real time. There are, however, challenges to implementation. Water absorbs RF signals, while metal reflects the signals. Therefore, tag location on these applications is key. 4. Manufacturing execution systems (MES): MES has been described as the layer of software implementation between the plant floor and the enterprise application system. Now that the infrastructure of Scada exists, MES applications are easier to implement, and can relay data and information up and down the enterprise. MES can also be used for tracking purposes, as it can produce reports detailing the raw materials that went into an item, as well as each process it went through. 5. Wireless communications/networking: Wi-Fi and "hotspots" have become buzzwords these days, and are increasingly implemented on the plant floor. With wireless technologies, cabling can be eliminated, fork lifts and other mobile equipment can be in constant communication with other systems, and information flow is enhanced. Don Mahony's top five Don Mahony is a business development manager for Mississauga, Ont.-based Schneider Electric Inc., specializing in industrial control automation solutions. 1. Ethernet communications: The replacement of various proprietary communication systems with Ethernet will allow multiple manufacturers to use the same communication system. There has been movement towards this standard as more manufacturers provide connectivity using this system. 2. Advanced PLC programming tools: Users have typically defaulted to the familiar ladder logic language instead of using the power of the four standard International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) languages available in modern PLC programming packages. For example, a sequential function chart should be used as an overview for any sequential process; structured text is the most efficient way of handling calculations; function block language is an excellent way of depicting a process application; and a ladder diagram is the best approach when interlocking is required. A project is often composed of multiple applications. The key is to select the language that best suits the needs of the engineering team and the maintenance group. 3. Internet technologies: In the past, automation systems were focused primarily on the control of the process or machine. Today, there is more emphasis on obtaining data from the process or machine, which can then be turned into information for production decisions. Internet technologies, such as web servers and mail servers, can be used to make this information available to all departments on a corporate network. The latest technologies embed these servers into plant-floor controllers, drives and monitors, so the information can be accessed on a browser anywhere on the connected network. 4. Remote machine access: Machinery is becoming more complex as manufacturers strive for better throughput and less downtime. In many cases, this requires dedicated training for maintenance personnel on each machine, resulting in huge costs for major installations. Some OEMs design their machines with built-in communications back to the factory for improved maintenance and reliability. This line of communication not only allows factory technicians to troubleshoot the machine remotely, but also provides the manufacturer with information, such as wear rates, so they can provide more accurate, predictive maintenance programs to the users. 5. Simulation software: In the past, a new product's lifecycle could be expected to be measured in years. Today, it may be measured in months. This means the developmental cycle must be compressed to maximize the time the product is available. A key to minimizing the developmental time is using simulation software for product and process design. Modern control software allows both PLC and HMI applications to be exercised internally on a developmental computer to prove the logic and configuration before they are loaded into the controllers or computers. Trevor Jones' top four Trevor Jones is the director of OEM business development for Thermo Electron, Laboratory Automation and Integration (formerly CRS Robotics) of Burlington, Ont., and president of the Robotic Industries Association. 1. Robotics: Flexibility is the order of the day. Robotics will help in product line switchover when demand pulls new products from the factory. Robots also lend structure to the way products are assembled, and how the factory is laid out. Those supported with computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software for production planning will shorten line change-over time. More powerful controllers make robots faster and more capable of adapting to sensory input than ever before. New robotic controllers will have more dedicated application-centric software to shorten set-up time and provide more optimal in-process control. 2. Automated process feedback and data collection: Adapting processes for constant improvement is key. Robotic and other machine controllers will provide more process control data and will adapt to changing process conditions. Machine vision can be used for process control and for capturing quality data. Analysis software will spot statistical and special cause variations in the processes. 3. On-demand quality documentation: Flexible manufacturing requires on-demand information. Shop floor staff have to be updated with the latest techniques and information about how products have to be built and tested. Final inspection is essentially a "waste" in lean manufacturing theory. The right job has to be done the first time with little waste, scrap or rejects. 4. Wireless communications: I see a more intimate link between humans and machines, supported by convenient communication devices. Wires are a thing of the past. Safety protocols and technologies must be adapted and supported within the framework of wireless communications. Safety standards must address these emerging technologies aggressively. Sal Spada's top three Sal Spada is a senior analyst with the ARC Advisory Group. His areas of expertise include computer numerical controllers, general motion control, servo drives and machine safety. 1. Adaptive machine controls: The manufacturing community is continuously seeking to improve quality in production as the market moves to zero tolerance in defects. Thus, there is a demand in the market for more adaptive controls. There are many forms of adaptive solutions in the market that are working in tandem with advanced algorithms embedded directly in machine controls. Spot welding is a good example of a process that lends itself to adaptive controls. The pneumatic positioning systems that have dominated the industry in the past are now being displaced by electronic servo control. The use of weld tip displacement systems that rely upon electronic motion control to position the weld tip is a trend that is taking hold. Manufacturers are able to control force and measure displacement, thereby adding another dimension of adaptive control to process. Overall, electronic servo control adds another element of flexibility to rapidly improve production processes or quickly adapt a new product to the system. 2. Intelligent software: Manufacturers want to improve the operational efficiency of their existing assets. The primary mechanism to measure and manage asset efficiency has been to use overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) analytical tools, which require visibility and connectivity to equipment on the production floor. The challenge, however, is to take this data and turn it into information that is actionable by managers and operators on the production floor. We are seeing a rapid emergence of software on the factory floor that provides intelligence and guidance on how to balance the load on a production line and fix problems that have the most impact on productivity. The key to improving production efficiency is identifying corrective actions that lead to maximizing uptime. Thus, it is knowledge-based tools that are shattering the traditional notions of managing asset efficiency. These tools employ simulation, as well as weighted analysis, to eliminate objectivity in production floor decision-making. 3. Safety systems: Business and plant managers are actively seeking an intelligent safety strategy that not only protects humans, machines and the environment, but also supports business benefits such as increased productivity, improved machine efficiency and increased uptime. Manufacturers are taking these business factors into account when considering new automation upgrades and installations. A more modern, effective safeguarding strategy is one that is integrated as a system solution using intelligent automation components. The system approach results in minimizing the risk of operator injury to a tolerable level while allowing the operator to work efficiently. Modern safety systems allow operators and maintenance personnel to gain access to machine safety zones or reduce the risk of injury by setting programmable limits on actuator speeds, forces and torques.

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