Alex, It's interesting how ultimately software is both the biggest obstacle and key trend/enabler for moving ahead. There are many interesting developments in automation control software with simulation tools, the move to model based design plus the continued emergence of object-oriented programming as a way to reduce overall complexity of code. But there are also the needs for more software convergence that leverages available network infrastructure, better diagnostic tools and processes that more efficiently combine design ideas and prototypes with system integration and deployment.
William K makes cogent comments regarding software exceptions and understanding of systems as a whole. Both issues are part of what I was getting at. It's not that I'm not a believer in the flexible digital factor (a better way of phrasing it that "digital factory of the future"). It's that we need to be realistic and realize there are no magic bullets, notwithstanding the fact that graphical programming is indeed a workforce multiplier and does allow non-programmers to do lots of useful stuff. It's when the bits hit the fan though that there are sometimes problems for them...
There are some interesting claims made for drag and drop graphical programming. It certainly would allow people who are not masters of code writing to produce programs of some kind. But software, far more than hardware, is often unable to handle exceptions and failures. We all know that to be true.
A fundamental requirement for repairing things, if the process is to consist of more than randomly replacing parts, is to have an understanding of what the system to be repaired is supposed to be doing and how it is supposed to work, which are the two things that the packeged graphical programming environment is intended to conceal. A line-by-line analysis of some process diagram program is considerably less informative than the somewhat older formats. So I see more than a few challenges when these systems have a failure occur.
Good points, Alex. I hear from automation vendors who say their newest technology tends to go into greenfield plants, which, as you observed, tend to be in developing countries (China, India, East Europe, and South America). The technology in brownfield deployment tends to not be as advanced, since it's usually an add-on.
I remember we faced a similar problem with Japan in the decades after WWII. They had new plants that the U.S. has helped them build. The U.S. had pre-WWII plants. The Japanese plants were more advanced than and thus it caused the U.S. some competitive challenges, particularly in automotive.
I'm still hearing that U.S. plants are the most productive in the world. Not sure how that can be when the greenfield plants outside the U.S. are getting more of the newer technology.
The whole greenfield versus brownfield dynamic is a very real issue in update of advanced digital technologies in the factory, including build-out of wireless networks. So in the U.S., corporations have all this cash with nowhere to go. (That is, they're reluctant to spend it on infrastructure upgrades without sales upside to justify it, notwithstanding the fact that most manufacturer execs are dying to do the upgrades.) In China, OTOH, greenfield plants WILL utilize the most advanced technologies. What does this say about who will be in a better competitive position a few years out. Scary stuff.
I would imagine we will see fewer and fewer differences in plants in Asia, Europe and North America --- or even South America. So many of the vendors and contract manufacturers are global. Plus, the digital plants are effectively portable. Manufacturers -- and utilities -- are wrapping up their digital best practices from their top plants and conveying them to plants around the globe (when possible). In conversations with Siemens and Rockwell, a good portion of their new-plant business is in Asia, Eastern Europe and South America. Clearly regional differences will be diminished.
I agree, Ivan, the plant as a video game is interesting. One thing I'm hearing is that it used to be difficult to get engineering graduates to go into plant operation. That apparently is changing as plants become more digital. What I'm hearing now is that young engineers are now attrracted to plant operation because of the software and connectivity. The young engineers also take to the digitized tools more quickly than the senior engineers.
As Bill Weaver says, rapid configuration changes and real-time performance are the hallmarks of the emerging digital factory. So I'd say that this is NOT something which was capable of being implemented a decade ago. The technology was not compact, nor flexible enough. As for China eating our bacon, it is true that the digital factory in the form I've written about doesn't come cheap, so ROI could be a real roadblock to widespread adoption (meaning China undercutting on price could slow deployment down).
I wonder how much of this knowledge base can be encoded into an AI like IBM's Watson. Once the AI is taught or loaded with the manufacturing details could it then "reason" about it and come up with improvements and new processes? I understand Rule engines can be applied to greatly simplify logic operations and that might help as well. I think bringing in more AI into the Design aspect could be a factor.
The remark about video games and the plant being a big real life version of a game struck me as interesting. Perhaps one of the main impediments to automation is in the ability to visualize the complete process from many view points and then drill down into each step within the processes.
Creating software that looked like a video game but in fact represented an automated factory in all its details might be useful. Seems like in the examples given there are lots of logic switches like what to do if this happens and so on.
My suggestions then are related to making the Design of these Digital factories more driven by AI and Rule based systems. With appropriate constraints and oversight maybe that would help.
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.
Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.