Connectivity Enabling Smart Manufacturing

The push to achieving more intelligent, integrated manufacturing is putting a strong focus on networking and connectivity as key enabling technologies. At first, that might seem surprising, given the ongoing technology push to make automation faster, cheaper, and more productive. But it seems that automation control suppliers are telling us that the key to smarter manufacturing is actually stronger, more coordinated, flexible links between production and the enterprise itself.

The common mantra among control suppliers is that OEM machinery builders are using a single control and information platform to connect the plant floor to the enterprise, and to meet end-user demands for throughput, efficiency, flexibility, and downtime. OEMs are realizing the benefits of using a single control and information platform to demonstrate a high level of intelligence with the ability to consume and generate information automatically, adapt to new situations, and give them the remote access and insight.

According to Christopher Zei, vice president of the global industry group at Rockwell Automation, there are three important messages and goals to consider. One has to do with the end users' goal of plant-wide optimization as they seek lower total cost of ownership (TCO). A second is machine builder performance: how building better machines can help users achieve their TCO objectives, and how machine builders can better partner with those users. A third message involves sustainability initiatives that support manufacturing efforts.

"More of the automation decisions and even characteristics of the system are being decided by machine builders. These days, more manufacturers, many of which no longer have big engineering departments, are simply telling the machine builders what performance they need with regard to throughput, efficiency, flexibility, and downtime," Zei told Design News.

Two key drivers for builders are the demands to improve both machine throughput and machine flexibility. These two trends are connected, and it's becoming a standard requirement that machines are able to generate information, and make it reliably and securely available. "Convergence of manufacturing and enterprise systems is happening because of a common thread now, which is Ethernet," Zei told us. "It was there on the business side, but you saw a lot of proprietary networks on the manufacturing side. Now, there's a lot of information moving back and forth."

Chet Namboodri, Cisco's global industry director for manufacturing, said users are gaining value from adoption of practices involving the convergence of networks and the use of Ethernet on the floor. He noted that Comau Robotics, a supplier of automotive industry assembly lines, now uses EtherNet/IP for about 80 percent of its operation's communications. At the most recent ODVA annual meeting, he said Comau reported that it found installation, commissioning, and debugging of a project that involved 10 control stations and 12 to 15 robots now takes two days instead of a week and a half.

"If you think about the integration of the enterprise into the factory down to the device layer, there still are two worlds," Namboodri told us. He said that the policies and priorities of the IT side still are rated differently. For the factory side, uptime is everything, while first on the list for IT is protection and confidentiality.

The bottom line for me is that connectivity and communications are becoming top priorities because they are viewed as producing the most substantial benefits in terms of meeting near-term goals. Part of the reason is the focus by customers on total cost of ownership, and the need to flexibly manage the "business" of manufacturing. The result is automation and control engineering intertwining with the IT world to achieve the higher level of connectedness required.

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