An important ongoing trend for automation and control over the past decade has been the convergence of machine control systems on fewer pieces of control hardware. As Moore's Law has continued to do its thing with processing power, and distributed network-based systems have emerged to link in processing power from intelligent devices, system architectures (in terms of hardware controllers) have been converging.
While the functionality of standalone motion and IO controllers has often been gobbled up, machine controllers have increasingly been converging on the operator panel. The lowly operator panel -- once a complex set of pushbuttons used as a dumb terminal -- has gone through many transformations. Now we're moving into a new era with touchscreen interfaces and operator panels that can serve as the main machine controller in some applications.
The Automation PC 910 from B&R Automation is part of a complete line of multi-touch panels, offering the form factor of an oversized iPad and using the latest third-generation Intel Core i technology. (Source: General Electric)
Along with the hardware shift and the centralization of processing power at the operator panel, we have the separate phenomenon of a changing role of the HMI. The operator interface is now often viewed as the dashboard for the machine, and the influence of consumer technology from smartphones and tablets is unleashing a new wave of software approaches.
At the Pack Expo to be held Sept. 25-26 in Las Vegas, B&R Automation is planning to highlight the Automation PC 910, a new industrial PC that uses the latest third-generation Intel Core i technology. The device is a multi-touch panel with the form factor of an oversized iPad, as you can see in the photo above. These kinds of interfaces are bringing a different approach to operator interface panel design.
A General Electric whitepaper (registration required) offers an excellent discussion about how these technology shifts and advanced software solutions are also changing the operator's role. The way operators perform their work is evolving from a purely functional role to a more strategic, decision-making one that relies on more information about the manufacturing process.
The modern operator has evolved into a multi-faceted employee, which has drastically increased the role's responsibilities as a "generalist," solving problems in real time and not specifically being an expert in merely one section of the process. Today, the operator is one of the key members of the team, and enhancing the efficiency of this role through improved operator response provides a critical advantage.
Operators have always been experts in the operation of specific machinery because of their hands-on experience with the process accumulated over time. With some companies getting operators more experience on different machines within a plant, one goal has been to make them more generalists, so they can collectively share information with co-workers and automatically transform data into information.
With systems now being deployed with heavy input from the operator and evolving into intelligent, analytical systems, the whitepaper concludes there is also a need to provide value-added information to users and not just data for visibility. Going into the future, collaboration will be more important, and so will interoperability standards within software suites to achieve faster rollouts and more flexibility on module selection across vendors.
It will be interesting to see how quickly these changes play out, but certainly there is momentum to transform the HMI in many machines. That means not only more streamlined hardware approaches but also more sophisticated interface software and networked connectivity solutions.
Al, this seems to be another move toward the flexible manufacturing cell. This is something that has been coming for a long time. Actually, there are many implementations, but I do not think it is a majority. Of course, this means that you will need better trained personnel.
I can also see an integration with Big Data resources. This would allow the people on the line to see and respond to changes as they occur.
naperlou, your comment "Of course, this means that you will need better trained personnel" was also my first thought. It really takes the operator task to a completely different level and calls for different skill sets.
From what is being described (if I understand it correctly), the decision-making process for complex processes is being incorporated into the operator function rather than the more functional roles of the past that required a separate engineering response under certain conditions. Of course additional education for a redefined role would normally require increase in pay rates, yet from what is being described, the programmer/engineering function would still be needed, they would just be somewhat freed up for other tasks.
It sounds to me like what we have in a traditional semiconductor manufacturer environment. From my personal experience, I would usually see an engineer assigned a product line with one or two technicians working for him. The techs are usually very sharp and can perform many of the jobs that fall under the engineer's tasks, and often know the products better since they work closely with them on a daily basis. They have received training at a tech school or extensive hands on experience in order to be able to perform their tasks, and their pay grade is above an operator that runs the tests sets that tests the products. We wouldn't ask a tech to run a test set - it wouldn't be cost effective. And we wouldn't ask an operator to make decisions that they were not trained for.
I'm not sure how this would all play out in an automated high capacity manufacturing environment since I have no direct experience with that - but it seems to me that while on the surface the generalist idea may be a good one, the proposed paradigm would be costly to implement and would in fact, cause jobs to be lost for a strata of manufacturing that have valuable skill sets (operators) but may not have the potential or aspiration for the technical training that would be required.
Nancy, In this context, generalist means an operator that also has experience with other machines on the line. The theory is that this helps develop a better understanding and appreciation for the entire process.
According to the people I'm talking to in the auto industry, more generalists (to use Nancy's definition) are needed. I keep hearing how one person is now replacing three by being able to operate muiltiple machines.
Are they robots or androids? We're not exactly sure. Each talking, gesturing Geminoid looks exactly like a real individual, starting with their creator, professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University in Japan.
Truchard will be presented the award at the 2014 Golden Mousetrap Awards ceremony during the co-located events Pacific Design & Manufacturing, MD&M West, WestPack, PLASTEC West, Electronics West, ATX West, and AeroCon.
For industrial control applications, or even a simple assembly line, that machine can go almost 24/7 without a break. But what happens when the task is a little more complex? That’s where the “smart” machine would come in. The smart machine is one that has some simple (or complex in some cases) processing capability to be able to adapt to changing conditions. Such machines are suited for a host of applications, including automotive, aerospace, defense, medical, computers and electronics, telecommunications, consumer goods, and so on. This discussion will examine what’s possible with smart machines, and what tradeoffs need to be made to implement such a solution.