The plant floor of tomorrow - today

Tuesday March 25, 2014
Written by Vanessa Chris
As electronics become smaller, faster, cheaper and smarter, it’s safe to say that the plant floor of the future is here — at least on paper.
After all, if we can heat, cool and arm our homes via mobile apps — and create cars that park themselves — that technology should be able to translate into more energy-efficient plant floors, forklifts immune to human error, and machines that can alert appropriate technicians when they run into trouble. Right?

Well, it’s not that simple. The manufacturing world has always been slow to adapt to new advances in technology — primarily due to costs. Creating a “smarter” plant floor is no different. Behind every smart device ultimately lies a sensor — and despite what you may have heard, not much is changing on that front.

“Everyone is used to things moving so fast, but that’s not the case with sensors,” says Jim Pinto, a speaker on technology futures, automation industry writer and commentator. “You’ll see new sensors in 2014, but they won’t be cheap or terribly small. They’ll ultimately stay the same — but how we use them will be different.”


Evolution of Bluetooth
Many sensors, for example, will now be packaged with Bluetooth capabilities. Since the advent of Bluetooth Version 4 (V4) last year, manufacturers have more opportunities at their fingertips — without a huge price tag. Although Bluetooth has been around for a while, V4 is low power with a range of 50 to 100 metres. It has a low bandwidth, with only six to eight channels, making it more difficult to intercept than previous versions.

The biggest advantage of Bluetooth V4, however, is that it’s small enough to put on a meta tag.

“You can stick these Bluetooth meta tags on something you want to find later — such as a part, for example — and it will respond to another Bluetooth device that is searching for it,” says Sherman Lang, industrial technology advisor at the National Research Council of Canada. “Add a sensor to it and you can place it on a machine and test for temperature, humidity — anything you’d like.”

These Bluetooth tags will likely take the place of RFID tags, which are lower power and need to be close to a transmitter to work. Bluetooth is more powerful and can respond to any type of device that is equipped with Bluetooth capabilities — including smartphones and tablets.

Increased mobility
Bluetooth is one reason that mobile devices are increasing in popularity on the plant floor. They’re also relatively inexpensive, easy to use and incredibly popular in the commercial world as well. It’s this popularity that is causing more companies and software developers to find new ways to use these devices in manufacturing settings.

“The way it works is the guy at the top of a big company has an iPad. He walks into a meeting and says, ‘Tell me how this is going to work in our facility,’” says Matt Crandell, president of Automation Control Products, a company that offers centralized thin client and terminal server management software for the automation industry. “Now these big companies are forming ‘mobility committees’ to figure it out — and the demand for software is increasing.”

Crandell’s company is responding to this push. In February, it launched its Relevance software — a program that integrates mobile devices into the company’s existing Thin Client system. Thin Clients are essentially PCs with no hard drive and no resident operating system that take the place of more expensive industrial computers. They are merely terminals that are connected to a PC that is offsite — in a cleaner office environment.

When brainstorming ways to integrate mobility into their existing operating structure, there were a lot of questions to consider.

“We had to ask ourselves, ‘How do we make this work in our environment?’” he says. “When you’re in a tethered world — Thin Clients are strapped to the floor — the device isn’t going anywhere. When you go mobile, you have to consider who has the device, where do they have it, where are they?”

It was pretty obvious that a Bring Your Own Device — or BYOD — approach wasn’t going to work in the manufacturing world. (“No one wants to bring the new iPad they got for Christmas onto the plant floor,” Crandell says.) Instead, companies are required to buy mobile devices that remain on the plant floor, and users sign into them. The mobile devices are then connected to Thin Client terminals via Bluetooth.

“The content isn’t delivered to a person, but to the device. The device then becomes a GPS — the software knows the location of the device and the people on the floor,” Crandell says.

As an example of the benefit of this system, imagine an alarm goes off on a machine. The software will detect that there are 20 users on the floor. Of those 20, only five are qualified to deal with the issue at hand. It will then find the qualified user closest to the situation and send the alarm directly to them.

This is just one example of how this new technology can make manufacturing more efficient — but there are many others.

“This technology offers so many benefits to planning and scheduling on the shop floor,” says Weiming Shen, a researcher and expert in intelligent distribution at the National Research Council. “It can help managers make decisions faster by collecting information in real time. Plant operators can get to information quicker and more accurately. And it offers improved tracking of components and people.”

All this tracked data can also easily go back into the system — which can prove helpful, not only for record keeping, but for maintenance as well.

“The technology is out there to turn an iPhone into a thermal imaging camera,” says Lang. “If there’s an issue, you can take a picture, send it to the service rep in Germany and they can offer advice.”

Obstacles ahead
Obviously, like all change in the manufacturing realm, increased mobility comes with its share of challenges. For starters, while new Bluetooth tags are not overly expensive, they still cost more than existing RFID tags — about $10 per tag, compared to just pennies.

Increased mobility also means the extinction of the operator position, which could pose a problem in unionized environments. There will also be a learning curve involved as people become acquainted with mobile devices.

That being said, the plant floor of the future has never been more attainable. It’s literally right at our fingertips — and many companies will be reaching out and touching it in 2014.

“The automation business is traditionally conservative — that’s why it lags behind,” says Pinto. “For the first time ever, we’re seeing a grassroots movement. Users will embrace mobile applications. This has never happened before.”

Vanessa Chris is a freelance writer based in Guelph, Ont.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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