Electronic Products & Technology

Feature

Transforming industrial automation systems to boost profitability

How industrial automation is breaking down the barrier between information technology and operational technology to deliver true business performance


You’ve probably heard of a ‘smart home’ or ‘smart appliances’ but when it comes to factories, many of us still envision the traditional assembly line that pioneer Henry Ford invented at the beginning of the last century.

But that mould has now been broken. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is transforming the Canadian manufacturing industry, which has legacy systems that have been in place in excess of four decades. While many businesses are familiar with the Internet of Things (IoT) in the examples given above, they may not be as familiar with the IIoT. The main difference between the two is that the latter is a subcategory of the broader IoT, focusing specifically on industrial applications such as manufacturing and agriculture. The IIoT adds value to these applications by increasing efficiency as well as improving health and safety.
Industrial manufacturers in this country and around the globe are starting to realize the value of the IIoT and how it offers the ability to extend real-time control across their value chain because it has the potential to finally dissolve the barrier between information technology (IT) and operational technology.

Unlocking the value of IIoT

The IIoT is driving transformation in the manufacturing industry, rendering old models of production obsolete. This transformation is achieved by integrating industrial automation, communications and networking siloes at the base level. Companies can then unlock the true value of the IIoT by controlling asset performance from the bottom up through automation and control architectures. By controlling business variables in real time using the IIoT, manufacturers can make business decisions to achieve true cost and time savings that will ultimately have a positive impact on their bottom lines.
Unfortunately, the industrial manufacturing sector is still reliant on legacy systems that have been in place for decades and were only focused on improving manufacturing process efficiencies rather than total business performance. While distributed control systems (DCS) have traditionally done an excellent job of controlling process performance, they have had little or no impact on total business performance. In addition, because of technological limitations, the financial impact of configuring, engineering, installing, implementing and operating these systems has not been properly and accurately measured.

While many plants may have completed a system upgrade recently, most continue to run their operations in siloes. Unlike the IIoT, where everything is connected, legacy systems were designed to act and work independently. Plants have also not traditionally been connected to the Internet. Therefore the issue of connectivity remains a great hurdle for manufacturers to overcome in planning their IIoT journey.

Proactive versus reactive

By being connected, manufacturers are able to work in real time, enabling them to predict problems before they happen and not get caught up in constantly reacting to them. For example, the traditional way of performing maintenance and working in a plant is that if there’s a problem, you go through the maintenance procedures physically, working reactively, which is very time consuming.

In an IIoT environment, all systems are connected through applications and a central architecture. Sensors feed information back to the applications, enabling better insight into the operation of individual pieces of equipment, or groups of equipment, such as a line.

For example, some applications are able to provide analytics that feed into an overall platform. Monitoring assets and the health of machinery and equipment in the plant using sensors provides real time early warnings on failures and actionable alerts that support the maintenance team’s decisions. In other words, workers are able to detect if a machine is going to break down before it actually happens so they can address the problem right away and order a new part if necessary, saving time and money, as opposed to having to diagnose the problem and wait for the part to come in. Some software will also come with embedded workflow, so it can, for example, send the maintenance crew text messages and emails to alert them to problems in real time.

Another big benefit to leveraging IIoT tools includes the ability to process the unstructured data gathered from the plant via the sensors. By analyzing historical and operational data gathered from the plant, operational improvements can be made and the maintenance team can gain insights to help them realize profits and reduce energy consumption.

Measurable Benefits for Industry

By leveraging available tools, one ethylene plant saw an improvement in production rates to the tune of up to five per cent, while reducing its energy consumption and material costs between three to five per cent. The plant was able to achieve an operational profitability of up to US$20 million or more per year.

In another use case, a large global cement manufacturer was able to realize a one to three per cent improvement in production, resulting in a savings of US$4 million per year, per plant, across multiple worldwide locations.

Further, in the base metals mining sector, one mine saw a one to three per cent reduction in energy costs and a three to five per cent reduction in material costs, with a profitability increase of up to US$35 million.
These results are proof the IIoT can help plants boost their profitability. However, with any digital transformation project, the true success doesn’t lie in just the technology but having a clear vision and successful implementation that incorporates the people and processes behind it.