Current trends in automation point to a disruptive, but necessary advancement of the capabilities of businesses to process or manufacture goods for a world market. With global markets come global competition — and that competition means if you can’t supply a customer’s desire, someone else will. Market insight can help to predict what the customer wants before they ask, and when properly applied, can significantly reduce or eliminate the lag between customer demand and saleable product. Nevertheless, you can’t expect to always know ahead of time exactly what a customer desires, so successful companies must be able to adapt quickly to keep up with rapidly changing markets and customers that demand a diverse range of options.
The bar has been raised for producers who want to succeed in this ever more competitive climate, and emerging digitalization technologies like Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), cloud computing, mobility and analytics will pave the way toward that goal. Many companies, however, see a substantial gap between their current state and what is required to even begin adopting these technologies. Furthermore, an iterative approach to implementation is often necessary for these companies to balance cash flow constraints with needed improvement efforts. Short-sighted CAPEX evaluation processes emphasize traditional objectives like simpler, cheaper and faster, which can throw aside ultimate long-term goals. What is needed to prevent this shortfall in achieving a capable foundation for the technologies described above is a surefire implementation strategy based on holistic, thoroughly conceived standards with an eye toward modularity, flexibility and ultimate sustainability.
In this two-part blog post, I will make the case that ISA standards, when blended in a comprehensive manner, can form the basis of a successful and future-proof automation strategy. Solutions which result from this approach enable the adoption of new technologies — even if that eventual adoption was not intended or planned for.
There is much talk about “smart factories” these days, the nirvana where operations, IT, supply chain and the customer all coexist in an ideal environment of information, collaboration, efficiency and reliability. This ideal may have seemed like fantasy a decade ago, but today it’s a defined goal of many serious global producers. This paradigm shift in how the manufacturing world should work requires the convergence of the digital world with the physical world, and will require technical capabilities and corresponding technologies that are just beginning to take shape. Adoption of these competences will be essential to getting a place at the global table or simply living off of the crumbs.
Automation, manufacturing execution systems (MES) and product lifecycle management (PLM) all play a part in the smart factory, so each system must be well integrated with the others. Working together, these systems enable the efficient management of workers, equipment, work in process (WIP) and finished goods. Each essential part of the operations whole must be implemented in a way that accounts for the requirements of the others — unlike the silos-based method of the past. Persisting with the outdated silo approach will ensure missing out on the efficiency levels promised by the smart factory paradigm.
Another aspect of smart factories is the capturing of previously untapped worker intelligence. By integrating them into the information flow through mobile devices and wireless networks, these on-the-floor assets become eyes and ears to the process in a way that sensors can’t. Knowledgeable workers are adept at recognizing patterns visually and audibly, but they must be integrated into the system before their potential added value can be realized.
Flexible & robust networking
The integrated technologies underpinning the smart factory run on data, and data is delivered by networks. This reality elevates the importance of the networking infrastructure in a facility and across the company. It’s like the central nervous system of the body, connecting all the parts together in a way that enables them to function as a unit. Without it, you just have a collection of disjointed parts.
Like the nervous system, a proper networking infrastructure operates efficiently and homogeneously — even when different mechanisms are employed. Like the body uses both electrical and chemical messages for passing information, a network will utilize multiple protocols to achieve the best fit of features to function. Using mainstream protocols will minimize incompatibility problems while shoring up the enterprise network.
As stated before, the most successful producers are the ones which are truly agile enough to adapt quickly to constantly changing demands. In addition to creating a capable infrastructure, nimble automation systems play a big role in achieving operations agility, and system design dictates just how nimble those systems are. The next part of this blog will focus on how to apply ISA standards to achieve that desired agility.