My last blog post talked about the live-or-die importance of a company to possess agility and adopt game-changing technologies for prosperous operation in the new world order. Mortality aside, the most successful producers are the ones which are adept at quickly altering their operation in response to constantly changing market demands.
This agile producer requires equally nimble processes and systems – not ones hindered by cumbersome designs and sluggish change management procedures. Rigid and overly methodical (i.e. slow) project execution also impedes the responsiveness needed to keep up with changing demands. Since sales opportunity windows are often short, modifications to production systems must be implemented rapidly or the opportunity is lost. Proper engineering of the automation infrastructure is essential for maximizing the ease at which these modifications are realized.
The recognition of bottom-line value enabled by flexible and capable automation is the first step in a company’s journey toward world-class operation. That recognition alone, however, is not sufficient enough to power a company’s effort to reach ‘elite producer’ status. Many times, outdated infrastructure and poorly designed systems restrict flexibility and adoption of new enabling technologies. Before success can be achieved, identification and remediation of those restrictions is required. Some of the problems are related to physical infrastructure and others to software design, but all must be addressed before there is any hope of competing well on the world stage.
Many facilities run on networks that evolved, rather than resulted from thoughtful planning. Those networks often started small, and grew as needed to support new operations or system functionality. The unplanned sprawl that results from this sort of evolutionary growth produces networks that perform sluggishly and are cumbersome to maintain.
Another common problem with many networking systems is physical isolation. Some facilities are composed of separate buildings performing unrelated operations, which may have never had the means or necessity to interconnect the local building networks together. In other cases, the networks may be physically connected, but do not share a common protocol. This is not unlike adjacent ethnic communities of a large city that do not interact simply because they speak different languages.
Recognizing that data is the lifeblood of the “smart factory,” and that data runs through networks, we can’t overestimate the importance of a capable and efficient network to operational success. Any attempt to modernize a company’s operational prowess should always start with a thorough evaluation of its network infrastructure.
Perhaps less obvious than the physical infrastructure, but of no less importance, is the foundational support provided by good software design. It’s an unpleasant reality that many of the automation systems currently resident in production facilities were created (or evolved) as stand-alone solutions, without standardization of method or function. When considered altogether as an integrated unit, these systems typically have holes or overlap in the functionality required for them to inter-operate effectively. Modifications to these systems often requires specific tribal knowledge about their unique design, time consuming troubleshooting of “spaghetti code,” a major re-write effort or all of the above.
Even more so, to achieve a level of efficiency and integration targeted by the smart factory paradigm (the ultimate goal), those existing systems would need to have been constructed in a cohesive manner from a master plan or template – something that is rarely seen in the “down and dirty,” “do more with less” operating climate so prevalent today. The successful implementation of inter-operable control systems for continuous, batch and discrete processes relies instead on good design.
While there are many possible ways to approach a software development effort, the best result should blend appropriate quantities of tried-and-true methods with value-adding newer technologies. Object-oriented design is one of those newer technologies that can greatly improve the speed and agility of project implementation, while establishing a consistent, flexible and capable platform for implementing any of the smart factory’s functional needs. Furthermore, the application of object orientation to automation doesn’t have to be left to the user’s own devices, because it is already “baked in” to the ISA standards related to software design.