Education Network for Industrial Automation
Education Network is a program to promote cooperation between engineering colleges, technical training centres, and Vendor companies with the aim of preparing students for a career which involves industrial automation. Education Network offers teachers and students many advantages. Latest technology upgrades are available for faculty and students on a regular basis. Equipment for exploration becomes easily available. Teaching and Learning material can be exchanged. A good interaction with real-life applications makes the learning experience a well-rounded one. It is, in short, a powerful program to prepare students for future.
The main issue facing industry today is the mismatch between requirements of industry and skillset of graduate engineers. This leads to the effect that industry must invest more into induction training, thereby delaying productive work from students and adding to costs of recruitment.
This mismatch occurs because the system in India as it exists has some shortcomings – curriculum of industrial automation is inadequate, access to a course on industrial automation is rather restricted (most universities do not have a course on IA), and paucity in trainers and faculty who have knowledge and exposure in the subject. An integrated scheme like Education Network which is offered among others by a company like B&R Industrial Automation, can be a perfect solution.
Manufacturing industries need industrial automation
Every manufacturing industry will use automation in their core processes or in ancillaries. The penetration of automation becomes deeper and broader all the time. With multiple demands like speed, accuracy, quality, energy efficiency, validation, tracking, etc., there appears no way around deploying automation.
There are multiple reasons for this trend. This trend is actually, we could well say, a part of the Third Industrial revolution. One important reason is the increased consumerism worldwide, and specially in India. The demand of consumers for goods has increased dramatically, and higher production volumes need high speed production, which requires automatic machinery. However, it is not only increase in quantity of production, it is as much also demand of consumer for higher sophisticated features and quality.
This is prominent in manufacture and supply of commonplace items of daily necessity. Much consumption of food is now processed in factories, and all food is packaged. It holds for personal care products, it holds for pharmaceutical products. Even in packaging demand for aseptic packaging with long shelf life is increasing.
To sum up, in order to achieve the high growth targets that the nation has set for itself, automation of manufacturing industry is an absolute must.
Data sciences, machine learning, all lean on automation
Industry 4.0, a movement which is shaking up existing order of things centres around data sciences. There are two parallel movements here. One is about data collection, data aggregation and data analytics. There is a second and equally significant movement about production technologies themselves. Here we speak of Robotics, we speak of additive manufacturing, and we speak of Augmented Reality/Virtual reality.
Many of these technologies are already available, and many more are coming our way. The critical issue is that our engineering curriculum does not prepare students for these new technologies and new applications. Therefore, even when we speak of our demographic dividend – that we have a huge pool of young educated engineers – if the engineers do not have skills necessary for building future, then they may rather not prove to be such an asset after all.
Classical and new branches of engineering
Of olden days, core engineering meant civil engineering, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering. As technology became more available, more specialised branches of engineering opened up – computers, IT, telecommunication, and so on. The body of knowledge has become very vast, and it is not possible to impart information to every student. So specialisation is needed.
Of yore, automation – in sense of PLCs, Drives and Operator Interfaces – was allotted as a part of Instrumentation Engineering. This association happened because automation made first inroads into process plants like in oil & gas, power plants, etc. But now, we find automation in all plants and factories, big and small. Hence, the way forward is in interdisciplinary design work, like for instance mechatronics.
What are the employment opportunities?
We could view the manufacturing industry as a value chain. At the delivery end of the value chain are the OEMs – the people who make cars, refrigerators, televisions and so on. Equally there are plants and factories manufacturing cement, steel, fertilisers, etc. Each of these factories, be it producing bottled cool drinks or toothpaste or shampoo, or be it life-saving drugs, are construction materials, they all have one thing in common. They have machines in the factory, and these machines have automation. Hence factories need engineers who will operate, maintain and repair these machines. These engineers will have to understand automation.
One level behind in the chain are the factories who manufacture these machines. Since these machines are automated, machine-builders have a need for engineers who understand automation. It can be seen from the above that for every mechanical engineer, every electrical engineer, knowledge of automation is a big asset when it comes to employability.
Beyond automation, there is today’s drive towards digitalisation. This is essentially extracting data from plant events and aggregating them with a background data analytics. Implementation of these functions needs edge controllers, and connectivity to cloud. Automation processes and components are essential in this field.
There is yet another area – of Building Management Systems. This is of managing heating/cooling, ventilation an allied services for enclosed spaces like factories, hotels, residential complexes, sports venues and so on. The concepts of automation apply equally in this field, the significant difference lies in types of sensors, and the connectivity.
Equipping engineers with knowledge of automation
In the earlier days, engineering was vertically stratified as per construction (civil engineering), production (mechanical engineering), and power generation and distribution (electrical engineering). These disciplines built up specialised skills and hardly needed any interdisciplinary knowledge. This kind of thinking continued further with other engineering disciplines coming into existence. The advent of microprocessors, which formed basis for Industrial PCs, changed the game.
At this point, mainframe computers were used by Finance, Accounting and HR departments, and operated by IT department. The PC started off as a replacement for the mainframe. But soon PC became an essential tool for all activities of the organisation – for programmers, but also CAD draftsmen, replaced typewriter for secretaries and so on.
In an analogy, PLCs started off as controllers for digital processes. The analog processes in process plants were realm of DCS. PLCs essentially could handle digital IOs and were seen as replacement of relay control boards. The PLCs have shrunk in size and become more powerful as well, and today every manufacturing process has a kind of automation controller.
But beyond using a control to achieve the process as desired, the effect has spread further. When new machines are designed, the design will already foresee what sort of controller will be needed, and based on the capabilities of the controller, specifications of machines are made (and vice-versa). Therefore every machine designer – what is usually job of a mechanical engineer – has to have a good knowledge of automation. He need not be an expert programmer, however he has to know the capabilities and limitations.
Once machines are deployed, they need to be operated and maintained. This is not done by Automation engineers, but by the field engineers of other disciplines. Here need is for learning diagnostic tools and installation procedures, and a capability to perform routine audits.
Hence it can be safely concluded that, even if one is not becoming an automation engineer per say, a knowledge of automation is an advantage for every aspiring engineer.
New picture of automation
When we think PLCs we generally think in terms of modules mounted in a electrical cabinet, and when we open the cabinet we see a large number of blinking LEDs. Well PLCs and drives have come much further than that. Today, PLCs can be small self-contained units, they can also be integrated inside a drive. They could be running inside a PC (of course you would use a rugged Automation PC). The Input-Output modules (IO modules) could be housed inside a central cabinet or they could be distributed over the plant (remote IOs or RIOs). They could be positioned as Edge controllers connecting data to the cloud. There are many exciting possibilities and combinations.
New way of designing machines
The way of designing machines has changed totally. It is imperative these days to be early to market. The earlier method of designing machines – by completing the mechanical design and construction first, followed by electrical design and wiring, and the end introducing automation, and finally testing it all together will no longer work. For one, it takes too long, and it is a very expensive method.
Modelling and Simulation
Present practice relies heavily on modelling and simulation. Initially the mechanical design is performed using CAD tools. Machine movement and processes are designed using Modelling SW tools. The model so created is tested using simulation SW. Only if the results of simulation are satisfactory, fabrication work starts.
It is obviously easier to change the design using software tools rather than going for modifications in electro-mechanical fabrication, and faster too.
Education network – first focus on faculty & trainers
Student is at the centre of Education network. Students want to learn topics which provide them with capabilities to succeed in their career. Manufacturing industries need engineers who understand automation. At the same account, educational institutes want to produce engineers with the skills that industry needs.
The gap is with curriculum, but also with faculty. Since there is a shortage of faculty trained in automation – theory but more so on practical applications, Education Network will start with training of faculty. This would work well because every trained faculty can help dozens of engineering students every year, and this creates a multiplier effect.
Initiative by B&R
B&R has an initiative called B&R Education Network, which embodies the above philosophies. The initiative is operational in many countries at several B&R subsidiaries. B&R strongly believes that a classroom lecture oriented approach is not sufficient for proper grasp of a subject like automation. Important is to have Hands-On-Training in Automation or HOTA.
To promote this, B&R offers an integrated approach – HW kits called ETA-kits, corresponding training modules, and examples and exercises. To facilitate the delivery of this system, B&R provides at regular schedule training programs for Faculty.
Knowledge of industrial automation is essential for every graduate engineer. Today this knowledge is not adequately provided to every young engineer. One reason for this lies in curriculum, and another in lack of trained faculty. The way forward lies in an inter-disciplinary approach.
Education Network by B&R is a program aiming to address these two factors, so that manufacturing industries can become more productive.
Sivaram PV, Non-Executive Chairman, B&R Automation India, has been associated with the company since its inception in India. He is also on the Editorial Advisory Board of Industrial Automation.