The best of industrial automation is yet to come
Regardless of whether you call it Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet or the Internet of Things (IoT), the shift towards connected technologies is clear across most industry sectors. Ongoing developments are lowering the cost of smart technologies for industrial automation systems and making these new technologies available to the wider industry. Smart sensors, vision systems, data analytics software and cloud computing are the building blocks of the connected manufacturing facility and the smart supply chain.
Most industrial companies currently rely on wired systems, such as fibre optic to support their network infrastructure. Although wired networks facilitate high transmission speeds and large volumes of traffic, cables tend to degrade over time, resulting in poor transmission quality and high maintenance costs. Not to mention that when production facilities are spread over a large space, cables can become inconvenient very quickly.
Historically, there have been two factors that have limited the wide adoption of wireless in industrial environments: cost and security. The former looks like it will soon become extinct, as wireless sensors and IoT devices are becoming more affordable. Similarly, improvements in cyber security and an increasing awareness of best practice are making wireless a more viable option for industry.
The growing demand for IoT technologies is driving the implementation of industrial wireless. A recent report by ON World estimates that sales of wireless chipsets used for sensing and control applications will reach the half a billion mark this year.
The convergence of Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) is clearer now than ever before. The benefits of tight integration between the factory floor and enterprise business systems results in improved manufacturing efficiency and flexibility, paving the way to the smart factory. Layers of compatible software suites are helping manufacturers collate and curate design, production and business data into clear reports that companies can use for asset management, process optimization, supply chain system and customer service.
At SPS Drives 2016, more than ten leading automation suppliers came together to back OPC unified architecture (OPC UA), the most popular machine-to-machine (M2M) communication protocol for interoperability developed by OPC Foundation. ABB, Bosch Rexroth, Cisco, General Electric, Kuka – to name but a few – intend to support OPC UA in their future products.
This is a significant moment for industry, because it could signal the end of an era in which industrial automation systems relied on incompatible and non-interoperable standards to communicate between devices. In turn, this could mean that manufacturers never again find themselves locked into proprietary systems and can pick and choose the best technologies from different original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).
As huge volumes of data become available across manufacturing facilities, the shift towards condition monitoring and predictive analytics finally becomes possible. Cloud-based software tools are becoming more affordable and user-friendly, allowing manufacturers to achieve advanced process control and optimisation. Platforms such as Microsoft Azure mean that manufacturers can have a clear, real-time overview of their production facilities and use this insight to improve decision making and refine manufacturing processes.
From a maintenance perspective, this continuous monitoring of equipment and production allows manufacturers to dramatically minimise maintenance and repair costs. It also has the potential to eliminate an age-old industry bugbear – unplanned downtime.
If you attended any industry events in 2016, you will be familiar with the thrill and trepidation around the latest generation of industrial robotics – collaborative robots. The lightweight, affordable cobots are making cages a thing of the past and can work alongside people on a production line. Their integrated vision systems and advanced software means cobots display excellent situational awareness.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the cobot saga is its familiarity. Just like the personal computer revolution was sparked by the lowering cost of technology and accessibility to a wider audience, so too are industrial cobots becoming more affordable and available, with some cobots currently priced at less than $40,000.
Another peculiarity of the robotics market is the rapid international growth. China is now the second largest market for robotics in the world. Sectors like automotive and electronics are still leading the way in terms of robotics sales, with metal, chemicals and food production quickly increasing their usage of the technology. Other high growth sectors are logistic systems, defence, construction and service robots used for cleaning or customer relations.
There is no doubt that the super trends above will all have an impact on industry in the coming year. Whether manufacturers choose to implement any of the technologies or not, one thing is clear – companies can no longer ignore the truly momentous shift that smart technologies are causing in industry.
So there you have it, 2017 is looking like a bright year for industry. It might even be the year when we see the first smart factories and warehouses make a debut.