This article was first published in the Spring 2014 issue of Prime
Today, the connection between automation and IT is more important than ever. With the Internet of Things and the growing number of internet-enabled devices in place, it is crucial for manufacturers to significantly increase their productivity, quality and flexibility. With Industry 4.0 in mind, the challenges are obvious, but there are many questions. How can manufacturers create intelligent networks and systems which control each other autonomously through the value chain? How can they interconnect multiple factories and geographical regions? What role do people play in the intelligent factory of the future?
It all starts with data – particularly machine generated data, which will be of even more value for manufacturers in the future. Some industry experts already call it the new currency for enterprises. In conjunction with manufacturers’ ability to collect and analyse this data, it will allow them to be more cost-efficient, to make profitable decisions faster and to stay competitive. Therefore it is essential for manufacturers to receive high-quality data in real time from the sensors on the shop floor where the decisions are formed – regardless if transferred to an MES or ERP system, or even to mobile solutions and cloud applications based on Microsoft’s Windows Azure.
In intelligent factories, the automation software must meet many requirements when collecting data from the field level and distributing it horizontally or vertically throughout the company. Firstly, there is its hardware independency. By using many different hardware components at one factory or multiple production sites worldwide, compatibility is crucial in order to save time and costs, as well as guarantee flexibility. Simply think about extensions, rollouts or changeover processes at a specific factory or multiple locations worldwide, which can be easily handled with ergonomic and innovative automation software.
Furthermore, connectivity to other systems such as MES and ERP and communication via specific protocols such as DNP3, IEC 61850 or IEC 60780 are, of course, important factors. Of great value is data produced in real-time, from the production floor to ERP systems, such as Microsoft Dynamics NAV or AX. Immediate insights are given, the right decisions can be made and predictions, e.g. for upcoming maintenance tasks, can be formed. As a result, previously ‘unpredictable’ events are under control, allowing for an optimum allocation of resources. Bi-directional interfaces even allow direct actions from the ERP level down to the machines.
But the story ends doesn’t end here. With the increasing use of smartphones and tablets, users can access data anywhere, anytime – regardless of whether it's via a private, hybrid or public cloud.
Besides the technical requirements, there is still one very important aspect to consider when building intelligent factories through connected devices: user experience. One of the biggest challenges will be to employ flexible staff that can cope with changing requirements and the growing amount of data. Highly dynamic user interfaces and the interaction between machine and user will affect how flexibly a manufacturer can adapt to changing processes, consumer behaviour or market developments. Ergonomic and intuitive automation software helps shorten engineering times and increase flexibility and user experience – making people perhaps the most important factor in the world of manufacturing and Industry 4.0.
Johannes Petrowisch is partner account manager at COPA-DATA
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