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The Digitized Plant Will Go Mainstream in 2018

Automation, National Automation, IoT, predictive maintenance, digital tools, plant efficiency, small manufacturers
Small manufacturers are beginning to take advantage of the newly affordable digital revolution.

When it comes to advanced technology such as internet connectivity, predictive maintenance, or big-data analytics, one often heard comment is, “This technology isn’t really new. Companies have been doing this for years.”

Much of that is true. But the companies that have been deploying smart manufacturing tools years have been the biggest manufacturers: GE, Boing, the Automakers. Smaller companies haven’t been able to afford it.

A digitized plant can be controlled for efficiency at the HMI level. Image courtesy of National Automation

The “new” idea at these conferences is that this advanced technology is becoming available to small- and mid-size manufacturers. Advanced automation is no longer exclusive to just the top 2% or 3%. The technology is becoming easier to use – and thus less of the pricy original programming is involved – and it’s less expensive.

“Technology and market changes are enabling small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) to take advantage of some of the benefits of digitization previously only seen by large companies,” Steve Mustard, president & CEO at National Automation, Inc., told Design News.

Digital Benefits Once Belonged Only to Big Manufacturers

The ubiquitous availability of wireless communications has lowered the entry price to communication across equipment and distance. “There is greater availability at lower cost for communications options such as LTE (high speed wireless),” said Mustard. “Such technologies allow SMBs to connect a geographically diverse range of assets without the need for investment in wide-area-network architectures.”

Other factors include less expensive computer storage as well as lower costs and higher speeds for processing. “We’re seeing more accessibility of cloud based storage and analytics. Companies such as Amazon Web Services offer a range of technical solutions in various commercial packages that are now within the budget of SMBs,” said Mustard. “The technical capabilities required to deploy these new solutions is very much less these days, meaning the project costs for implementation are also lower.”

The Measurable Benefits of Digitized Manufacturing

The reduction in the cost of computer storage and processing also affects a company’s ability to measure what it’s doing. Companies can use the new level of measurability to drive efficiencies and make better decisions. “We’re seeing the reduction in manufacturing costs. Better analysis of energy consumption or raw materials usage can identify areas for cost reductions. That can include the replacement of an inefficient plant,” said Mustard.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is also improving measurability, which again drives down costs. “Now there is greater product quality and repeatability - for instance, the increase in availability of IoT devices can enable better monitoring and control of manufacturing processes. That means more temperature readings, more often to enable better closed-loop control,” said Mustard.

This article is part of Design News’ 2018 Look Ahead package, offering perspective and insight on 10 areas of advancing engineering. Before you dive too deeply into 2018, prepare yourself for what will surely be an innovative new year with Design News’ 2018 Look Ahead articles.

The Growth of IoT Devices

When it comes to the IoT, there is a wide range of benefits brought about by connectivity on the shop floor, from improved measurement to data collection on equipment health. “There is significant growth in the market for intelligent sensors and actuators - the IoT. In the past, a relatively small set of vendors offered more expensive, somewhat proprietary equipment that was only in the budget of large companies,” said Mustard. “Nowadays many new vendors have appeared, offering a variety of point solutions that are based on open standards.”

Mustard noted that improved supply chain management – access to more real-time information from IoT devices – can form the basis of better supply chain management. “The real-time data allows companies to do just-in-time delivery of raw materials based on real-time storage level measurements,” said Mustard. “There will continue to be a reduction in the cost of ownership of IoT devices, communications and data storage which will open up new opportunities previously out of reach due to cost constraints.”

Robots and 3D printing are now affordable for small manufacturers. Image courtesy of Stratysis

In addition to the above benefits, predictive maintenance is an achievable goal from a digitized manufacturing system. “Deploying IoT devices and analyzing data – either directly or using machine intelligence to look for patterns – helps operators gain significant information about plant operations,” said Mustard. “This data can minimize time-based maintenance and maximize targeted need-based maintenance, saving staff costs and identifying potential failures before they occur, thus reducing unplanned outages.”

Advances Coming in Automation’s Future

While cost reductions are helping SMBs afford digital tools that were once the domain of larger companies, the lower cost of technology is also putting emerging technology into the hands of SMBs. “Advances in machine learning and lower cost of ownership of these solutions to allow greater analysis of data from the manufacturing process and better, more adaptive control strategies for those processes,” said Mustard.

That affordability is putting cutting edge advances into the hands of the small manufacturer – even virtual and augmented reality technology. The value of these new tools is just now getting tested on the plant floor.

“Adoption of virtual reality and augmented reality solutions will allow more rapid development, testing and evaluation of manufacturing processes and outputs,” said Mustard.

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Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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