Scalable Automation and Digitalization Solutions for Todays Industries
Published on : Thursday 04-01-2024
Craig Resnick, Vice President, ARC Advisory Group.
What are the key aspects to consider for a typical company that wants to switch over from a traditional manufacturing process to an automated environment?
Key aspects for companies to consider when wanting to switch over from a traditional manufacturing process to an automated environment start with defining what the company’s objectives are, such as increasing production to grow the business based on revenue forecasts or increasing productivity of existing assets and employees to be able to meet production goals for a lower cost. Within each objective comes a calculation regarding investments that need to be made to achieve those production or cost goals, which can include what technology, such as hardware, software and services would be required; and based on those investments, what would be the expected key performance indicators and the return on investment. The calculations will help the manufacturer decide the depth and breadth of technology investments, which can range from adding sensors, controllers, visualisation software and networking solutions to a process through adding Industrial Internet of Things sensors for asset management, digital twins to test and simulate processes before they are deployed, analytics and artificial intelligence to provide information to workers to make better decisions, edge solutions to process data at the production site, and cloud solutions to host a number of applications ranging from manufacturing execution systems, quality software, data historians, and software to support augmented and virtual reality applications.
How scalable are automation and digitalisation solutions for different sizes of manufacturing facilities?
Todays’ automation and digitalisation solutions are very scalable and are designed for all types and sizes of manufacturing facilities. Much of that scalability is driven by the shift from mostly hardware solutions to a combination of hardware, software, and services. Hardware today is much more scalable than in the past, ranging from devices that just perform their basic functions from sensors, controllers, valves, etc., to smart versions of those devices capable of supporting IP addresses and embedded analytics, which enables a lower cost entry point for a small manufacturer and the ability to scale up when change is required. For software, having options for purchasing software as a service and subscriptions, storing data on a private cloud or at a hyperscaler such as Microsoft or AWS, and paying for those solutions from a monthly, operational expenditures budget enables a much lower point of entry for manufacturers of all sizes and the ability to easily scale as the business needs require. This is especially more scalable versus getting the much larger, one-time capital expenditure budget approved for software that is run on local servers that the manufacturer must own on site and staff with personnel to maintain. Services provided by system integrators and automation suppliers also are much more scalable versus a manufacturer staffing all those roles in-house.
What are the initial costs associated with implementing factory automation and digitalisation?
The initial costs with implementing factory automation and digitalisation can vary widely. The initial costs of adding some proximity sensors connected to a nano or micro PLC may cost less than $1000 to do an extremely simple material handling application, but when you are dealing with thousands of sensors, multiple PLCs and PACs networked together, AC drives, HMI/SCADA software, etc., the initial cost can rise to tens of thousands of dollars. The good news is that thanks to the modularity of factory automation and digitisation solutions, a manufacturer can just spend what is currently needed and add to or expand the existing installed base as their needs change. This is especially true with most software thanks to software as a service, subscriptions, and cloud, where these initial costs for a small application could cost under $1000/month, but quickly scale to thousands of dollars per month depending on what applications are being added, such as manufacturing execution systems, quality software, and data historians. However, HMI/SCADA software, which is often an essential part of factory automation and digitalisation, is more likely to still be run on local servers or PCs or embedded in devices, such as operator terminals, due to its real-time nature, and can be an initial investment of $1000 and be modularly expanded to over tens of thousands of dollars as the needs of the manufacturing processes change.
How does the adoption of automation and digitalisation impact the skills required for the workforce?
The adoption of automation and digitalisation significantly impacts the skills required for the workforce, shifting some roles from manual and repetitive functions to ones that require an understanding how to install, program and maintain the automation and digitalisation assets as well as how to use those assets to operate the production processes at their most optimised levels. However, due to a global shortage of skilled workers, manufacturers are seeking solutions that are designed to help an untrained workforce come up to speed fast and become productive. For example, the use of wearables and augmented reality can be used to help guide these new workers through their required tasks and workflows, and virtual reality can be used for training and scenario preparation to prepare these new workers for responding to incidents. Another example is the use of software designed for low code and no code configuration so it can be configured with point and click tools versus requiring a data scientist that needs to program the software in languages such as Python. Artificial intelligence is also being used to function as an assistant to these new workers to help them do, for example, data and asset discovery, and provide information to the worker to help them make better decisions and do so more quickly and effectively. It is even being used to help these workers do 61131-3 programming for PLCs and PACs.
What regulatory considerations should manufacturers keep in mind when implementing automation and digitalisation with respect to safety and security?
A few international safety and security regulatory considerations should be kept in mind by manufacturers when implementing automation and digitisation. One is the International Electrotechnical Commission IEC 61511 Functional Safety Standard for the Process Industries, which is nearly identical to the International Society of Automation ISA-84 standard. Both standards specifically address process industry safety equipment and compliance of SIS devices, such as pressure and temperature transmitters, level meters, flowmeters, valves, switches, etc. Another related safety standard is the IEC 61508 Functional Safety Standard for the Electric, Electronic, Programmable Electronic Safety-Related Systems. This is a companion standard that specifies the criteria that must be followed to claim a SIL certification for devices. For cybersecurity, the ISA/IEC 62443 series of standards, developed by the ISA99 committee and adopted by the IEC, provides a framework to address and mitigate current and future security vulnerabilities in industrial automation and control systems. The ISA/IEC 62443 standards define a qualitative set of levels based on the perceived nature of the cybersecurity threat, as well as providing requirements and guidance in the lifecycle of an industrial automation control system. This life cycle begins with the development of single components, such as an embedded controller, or a group of components working together as a system or subsystem. Finally, there are specific safety and cybersecurity standards that are industry, application, or regionally based that must be adhered to.
How can existing machinery and systems be integrated into a digitalised manufacturing environment, and the challenges in the integration process?
Existing machinery and systems can be integrated into a digitalised manufacturing environment by leveraging open communication standards, such as OPC-UA and MQTT. OPC can be used, for example, to provide connectivity for software, such as HMI/SCADA to any existing PLCs and PACs, even if the controllers go back to the 1990s. If asset management is going to be performed by installing low cost IIoT sensors onto, e.g., existing rotation equipment, such as gear boxes, pumps, etc., to measure variables that can predict downtime, such as vibration, bearing temperature, oil viscosity, etc. MQTT can provide connectivity that is well suited for IIoT sensors. Also, many OEMs and machine builders are selling remote services to connect to their existing machines and do monitoring and diagnostics, providing services such as patches, updates, programming, and configuration, etc. This connectivity can also be done via leveraging the open communication and networking standards, Wi-Fi, 5G, cellular, as well as adding edge devices to the existing machines or devices, such as PLCs, PACs, Drives, etc., that are embedded with analytics software to help with the machine operations and provide information to the cloud that can be used for operating manufacturing execution systems, quality systems, and data historians.Challenges of the integration process are when trying to connect to a very old asset that has no option for connectivity or does not adhere to any open communication standards and requires a proprietary driver to communicate with.
(The views expressed in interviews are personal, not necessarily of the organisations represented.)
Craig Resnick is Vice President, ARC Advisory Group. Craig has been with ARC since 1999 and is the primary analyst for many of ARC’s automation supplier and financial services clients. Craig’s focus areas include production management, OEE, HMI software, automation platforms, and embedded systems. He has 35 years’ experience in sales, marketing, product development, and project management in the industrial market, gained with major suppliers of PLCs, process control systems, power transmission equipment, and field devices.