Nevertheless, progress is a stern taskmaster. Thus I suspect we will all lurch slowly toward a more highly PLMed world, like it or not.
Summarizing, if you had to pin me down, I'd list the following as the five most serious impediments to the digital factory of the future:
Cost, cost, cost. Seems like I've listed three of the five right here. Humor aside, the reason cost is such an issue is because we have a countervailing trend in the rise of low-cost controllers. (Paging Automation Direct.) Engineers hear an attractive technological message from high-cost, high-value vendors in one ear, offset by the siren song in the other about bargain hardware you can order online.
Understandability. Talk about amorphous issues on my laundry list. What I mean here is, as an old saw, I still don't trust software where I can't "see" the innards. Stuxnet makes that worse by stoking my fears that gremlins might be permeating my plant. I want transparency, not just programmability.
Open standards and bus compatibility. This bullet point is worth an entire post of its own. Suffice to say that, when we can't even agree on common terminologies amid the competing layers and standards, there's a lot of work left to be done. I'll temper that with a nod to some progress that's been made over the past year -- driven, I might add, by customer demands.
Safety. Strictly speaking, this is part of the standards bullet. A rising awareness of certifiable safety, spurred domestically by the need for global vendors to comply with European standards already on the books, is pushing this issue to the forefront.
Enterprisation of the factory. I've coined a word here -- "enterprisation" -- to put a name to another issue I have a hard time summarizing but am clearly cranky about. What I mean is that the implementation of the guts of the integrated digital factory requires many more hands from the world of traditional information technology than plant people are used to dealing with. Thus the question is, do those people get it? Do they know what they don't know? This is a soft, under-the-radar challenge, which I believe is nevertheless worth keeping an eye on.
What do you think of my list? (I can see I didn't talk about compatibility issues, which certainly merit some discussion.) Let me know, and please add your ideas in the comment section below.
Great look ahead at the challenges plant engineers face as they try to transform their assets to meet the real-time and visibility challenges of the digital factory of the future. I agree that the progress made with visualization tools (digital manufacturing suites like Dassault's DELMIA and Siemens' Tecnomatix to name a couple) as well as around graphical programming platforms like National Instruments' LABView which you mention, are critical to facilitating this transformation.
What is also critical is that manufacturers build out seamless integration points between production systems and product development platforms like PLM as well as with other core enterprise systems. You are absolutely on target that not all shops will have the hands-on expertise and foresight to bridge the plant mentality with the enterprise mindset. But they better get busy learning how if they want their plants to enjoy the benefits of this new age.
There is an interesting generational aspect to the "digital factory of the future." Engineering students who would not ordinarily be attracted to spending a career in a dirty old plant are now discovering that plants are no longer dirty and that you get to run the plant from laptops, iPads and smartphones. The evolution to the plant as an elaborate video game is getting the attention of young engineers.
Great, point Rob. With that, the latest in sensor and automation technology, and tight integration into the enterprise, the plant becomes a much more critical and desireable place to target career aspirations.
Upon reading your article Alex, I'm struck by the common theme between Factory Automation and Justin Moon's article on Multicore MCU Medical Devices. Both systems are developing toward rapid configuration changes and real-time upgrades; one system for monitoring a manufacturing process, the other for monitoring patient health.
What really concerns me is the current political climate that drastically increases the cost of human labor. Healthcare costs, safety compliance, wage pressures, union labor rules, disability compensation, worker litigation and pension costs are pricing humans out of the equation. While automation is a natural evolution, these pressures are rapidly increasing the arrival date of the completely-automated factory. Companies that have off-shored in search of less-expensive labor are finding the actual costs of lower quality, lower yields and higher returns of merchandise are as high as producing domestically.
While politicians continue to bicker over the best way to create jobs, those jobs are rapidly being lost to automation. This may be great news for the Industrial Automation and Control sector, however; those high-paying abundant manufacturing jobs are most likely gone for good. I am concerned the displaced workforce will point to automation as the real villain and usher in an entire bureaucracy to regulate the development of the digital factory of the future.
I can't help but chuckle as I think about the latest video game called, "Build you own warehouse." or something like that. But it is neat to see how technology is changing so much how we assemble things. It's no longer done on paper or even through a cad program but through simpler drag and drop programs. the nice part about this is it does allow less experienced engineers be able to focus on doing the job and not learning how to use the tools required to do the job.
As an Engineer of some 30 years experience I would say this is an attempt to get engineers out of the bulk of the development work, so that monkeys can knock something up for peanuts. While that sounds like a good idea on the surface, I'd say that it will result in a situation where when real engineering is needed they won't be there because no one will want to pay them due to the expectation that "anyone can do it". I was talking to a colleague a while ago about Labview, which is the quintessential visual development GUI and he said that there are so many things it just won't do well, saying that he has to do so much in 'C' or C++ to get something real happening. Sadly he will be expected to do that real work for the same wage as the command line inept engineer. Instead of smartening up engineers we just end up dumbing them down to everyone's detriment.
The digital factory has been in existance for several years. I've been retired for over 10 years, but before I retired I visited Mobalpa, the largest kitchen cabinet manufacturer in France. This was thier very new and modern facility located in the Thones Valley. Every skylight looked diractly at Mt Blanc! (NICE!)
They were producing totally mixed models, mixed sizes and mixed colors of kitchen cabinets - to custom order - across a sophisticated automated line - lights out. Sure I was surprised, but it was really simplistic. The idea is to have all the components arrive at final assembly and packaging at the same time. EVERYTHING was controlled by bar-code, even recieving. Bunks of 2 meter by 4 meter pre-laminated board were off loaded from a semi, barcoded and sent to an automated warehouse. All machines set themselves up using barcode for each individual part required for the order!
If an in-line machine went down, an alarm was shown on the main board. The maintenance crew was immediatley dispatched to make corrections. When a machine went down, a device immediatley in front of it started stacking the parts off line. The front end of the line continued running until the fault was corrected. When the line was re-started the device that stacked the parts aside would start adding parts to the line as space was available. This was a fairly new line, but it was operating at over 80% up-time.
If your company would spend the money, you copuld have the same benefits!
I re-read the article today and was thinking about how this technology could apply to manurfacturers that have to bring together different subcomponents from different side lines and subassembly lines. Quite different from the counting of units from the beginning of one line to the point where the two subassemblies come together.
@atired1. Some of my colleagues have been to high automation plants in China, Japan and Germany. They are very impressive to watch and surprisingly cheap to build and operate once you do the ROI calculations. It’s like anything in this world, you have to spend money to save money.
If a company has lazy management, they will just cut wages and quality. For some strange reason they are surprised when customers go elsewhere.
In my earlier post, I failed to mention that the designer of the line was an independent Italian Engineer. and almost all of the equipment was Italian built to his design.
I've been through several German and Italian manufacturer's plants that are really automated, A German manufacturer of large machines had several cells of automation where you least expected them - but it removed labor and assured quality. One was an automated line that produced long feed chains that had to be within a very close tolerance at over 90ft. length as they were used in pairs - up to 12 or more feet apart, with parts driving lugs on each. They shared a common drive axle.
I had designed and had built automated robotic welding lines that produced various sizes of the same product every time, as long as all parts were in the proper nested position. If all parts are positioned correctly, the desired welded result is the same. That's something people can't do is replicate the same weld every time. It takes monkeys out!
Another thing of importance, the European companies have a very high ratio of apprentices to skilled laborers. They perpetuate the skills required to build high quality automation, allowing the engineers to put thier full attention on designs - and not have to constantly put out fires.
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