Industrial automation in North America is a $22 billion market. Whatever the size of the manufacturing line, we are seeing three distinct trends in North America: sustainability and efficiency, sophistication, and the leveraging of system data. These trends are influencing the development of technologies that are driving real change in industrial automation across markets.
For both small and large industrial operations, long-lasting lines and lower impact power grids are critical. Manufacturers need their lines to run with the highest level of efficiency and when they don’t run efficiently, to have the lowest down time possible. Most manufacturers in North America are running lean operations and those systems must be able to survive in the long term with relative ease.
The second trend we’re seeing in North American industrial automation is increasingly sophisticated system applications within existing infrastructures. Most installations take the form of retrofits or upgrades, and those are done incrementally, as opposed to a completely new automation system. As a result, manufacturers need sophisticated systems that allow for greater functionality and interoperability with what’s already in place. With these new levels of sophistication, manufacturers face an interesting dichotomy. Though the systems are advanced, the operators on the production lines are not necessarily any more available than they have been in the past. For these systems that can do far more than was possible even just 3-5 years ago, their installation, maintenance and repair must be as simple as possible.
The third and final trend we are seeing in North American industrial automation is the application of system data into other components of the manufacturing process. Everyone is familiar with the concept of “big data,” but that data is exceptionally important to even the most minor changes in how production lines are run. One example of this is predictive maintenance, or using analytics to predict problems before they occur. This allows manufacturers to avoid interruptions in production and decrease the amount of down-time on a line. The implications of system data are huge in terms of efficiency. Time is money for the professionals working at the production level, and predictive maintenance can decrease the amount of time needed to repair a line so it’s up and running right away.
Key technological developments
There have been a number of improvements over time to the key product areas involved with industrial automation and control, but three are complimentary to each other with direct connections to the most rapidly growing markets: PC-based programmable logic controllers, drives and motors, and industrial computers/Human Machine Interface(HMI).
There is a wide range of PC-based PLCs available today, all increasingly sophisticated. These controllers require complex coding work to function with other key elements of an overall industrial automation control design. In North America specifically, manufacturing lines are experiencing an increased need for that sufficiency and sustainability outlined above. PC-based PLCs provide a much simpler user interface in that they can program devices to control a line without the support of an engineer who has 20 years of industry experience.
For both small and medium-sized operations, where engineers don’t necessarily have access to the kind of legacy knowledge required of more sophisticated PLCs, lower-end or mid-range PLCs increase sustainability and efficiency.
The second key product line, drives and motors, are a large and vital segment to the business. You can’t have industrial automation without drives and motors. Specifically where energy efficiency is concerned, drives and motors are the largest power consumers on a production line. As a result, we’re seeing in newer drives and motors increased efficiency, greater longevity and an ability to provide data to systems that are about to wear out or break down. Again, this type predictive maintenance is critical because a line doesn’t move without drives and motors.
Industrial computers and HMIs, the final key product line, play into the efficiency and system data trends mentions above. These are the components that allow engineers running product lines to understand what its efficiency levels are and how well industrial computers interface with the other systems in that line. In the last two years, we have seen an increased number of offerings from suppliers providing PLCs and HMI together as a packaged solution. Schneider Electric, Omron, Eaton and IDEC are a few of the major North American industrial automation companies combining solutions – proving the importance of this trend. Drives and motors are the heart and brain of the manufacturing line and this is an idea we’ve committed to at Newark element14 as well. Through these packaged solutions, industrial computers and HMIs are easily programmable and can communicate with other pieces of the automation line. All of the data aggregated during this exchange helps manufacturers better understand the sustainability and efficiency of their operations.
The key product lines mentioned above, coupled with the trends outlined at the beginning of this article, are all significantly impacting the energy, automotive, food and beverage, and medical and pharmacy industries. There is no denying the increasing demand for energy independence in North America. Drives and motors are now more robust out of a need to survive various, hostile environments with onshore drilling and fracking. The alternative energy market has also seen tremendous double-digit growth in wind turbines, and large solar arrays across the United States. At the industrial level, they are being used to better manage facilities. Both drives and motors have become more sophisticated in their design and functionality, but also simpler to control and use in a way that lets manufacturers understand where in the production process their inefficiencies lie.
Just as the energy industry demands independence, so does the food and beverage industry demand a sterile environment. Industrial automation plants in the food and beverage markets can decrease the amount of time needed to clean a line if the technology they are using withstands the cleaning process. As a result, moisture resistant or moisture-proof products have become more prominent and an undeniable advantage to have.
Lastly, the automotive and medical industries present tremendous opportunities for the second and third tier markets to upgrade their production lines and increase efficiency on the floor – especially in Canada and Mexico. The tier 1 manufacturers are already well automated relying heavily on robotics, but the supporting markets can upgrade their systems to last longer and easily switch from one set of products off of a line to another. With sophisticated but easily programmable PLCs and simple HMI for support, the drives and motors pushing these production lines forward efficiently– making the jobs of the manufactures and the engineers overseeing those operations easier.