The analysis of process data is emerging as a new frontier of industrial management, presenting many opportunities for manufacturers to enhance productivity and profitability by analyzing in real time the efficiency of machinery and components.
"We are seeing an explosion in data collection and analysis that we've never seen before," said Corey Morton, director of technology solutions at B&R Industrial Automation. "Once companies get a handle on what data are useful for their operations, it will change how factories are built and operated."
The Internet of Things (IoT), of course, is the enabler, rapidly expanding the connectivity of machinery and systems. To facilitate this, the OPC Foundation, an industry consortium based in Scottsdale, Ariz., developed Unified Architecture (OPC UA), a platform-independent industrial standard for communications that is neither vendor nor data specific. (OPC is short for Object Linking and Embedding for Process Control.)
According to the organization, OPC UA operates on all operating systems (Microsoft Windows, Apple OSX, Android, and Linux, among others), as well as all hardware (PCs, cloud-based servers, PLCs, and even microcontrollers).
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Adoption of this standard by industry, along with the IoT, is improving the ability of machines to connect with different devices and become networked. It is also allowing machine operators and OEMs to collect and analyze essential data.
Operators will benefit from this in many ways. One advantage Morton cited is condition-based monitoring, which allows analysis of individual machine components -- motor bearings, for example -- to more accurately determine when they need replacement, rather than going by a machine supplier's recommendations.
OEMs benefit by remotely monitoring their machines in customers' facilities and using the data to correct problems as they develop. This reduces downtime for manufacturers and eliminates the need to send technicians into the field.
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The integrity of remote monitoring connections is essential. Morton said B&R is adding a product at mid-year called the Secure Remote Access Device to provide secure outbound VPN connections between plants and remote monitors. A data exchange that operates with an outbound connection is preferable since the IT infrastructure in most plants can interpret data requested via an inbound connection -- a request outside the facility -- as an attack by a hacker.
Most important, all manufacturers can benefit from machine monitoring, data collection, and analysis -- no matter how big or small they are -- Morton said. The information gleaned from these activities will make factories more efficient and, with the IoT, allow operators to "close loops in many areas they never could before."
Factories of the future will become smart plants, where interconnected machines network with each other and generate data while providing secure monitoring of operations on site or remotely, if all goes well.
B&R Automation will be a key speaker on factory connectivity in the Internet of Things at Design & Manufacturing Canada in Toronto, June 16-18, a Design News event. It is part of a comprehensive education conference program on smart factories of the future.
Pat Toensmeier has more than 30 years of experience writing for business-to-business publications. His main areas of coverage have been defense, design, manufacturing, technology and chemicals, especially plastics and composites. He has reported extensively on developments in these areas from the U.S. and Europe, and covered industry events as well in Brazil and Asia. Toensmeier has held various positions at major publishers such as the McGraw-Hill Companies and Hearst Corporation. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a contributing editor for several print and online publications. Toensmeier is based in suburban New Haven, Conn.