The concept of smart factories has been common for some time. You might argue it goes back as far as Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote about ‘machines building machines’ during a visit to a FANUC robotics factory in 1982. It goes hand in hand with buzzwords like Industry 4.0, Internet of Things and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communication. These futuristic visions of manufacturing refer to an increasing level of factory automation and rely on a simple principle: everything in a factory environment must be connected.
Smart factories are meant to tear down traditional barriers, such as the distinction between physical and digital, the layers of conventional automation architecture and the separation between the manufacturing stages of product design, production planning, engineering and execution. The vision is that new generations of sensors and actuators will monitor production, transmit data to control centres and implement feedback.
Whether this pioneering vision will come true or not, nobody can yet say. One thing is certain: intelligent automation has a lot of potential in manufacturing facilities, regardless of size, complexity or industry.
One of the first challenges for manufacturers who are keen to transition to smart factories is the increasing volume of data. When everything in a factory environment – from sensors to programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and industrial robots – can generate and record data, the storage, transfer and analysis functions become crucial.
Smart factories need a reliable and deterministic way of transmitting data in real time, so decisions can be made with minimal human interaction. To handle the increasing amount of data, many different communication technologies are available. Manufacturers can replace inconvenient copper connections between field devices and the control room with a variety of options, from traditional fieldbus networks to Ethernet solutions or industrial wireless systems.
Deciding what communication technology to use in a manufacturing environment can be a difficult task. It is important to take into consideration the overall system requirements, existing field devices and any equipment set to be implemented in the future. The good news is that in most cases, the same infrastructure can be used for safety, control, SCADA, security and Local Area Networks (LAN).
With more than 500 million ports installed worldwide, industrial Ethernet is the dominant networking technology of the day. Applied in a rugged industrial environment, Ethernet provides a secure and flexible system that offers users the option of controlling and scaling it as needed.
When designing an industrial Ethernet network, attention to detail is crucial. This ensures costs do not spiral out of control and the result is sustainable in the long run. For example, Hirschmann INET switches are economical and reliable solutions, but it is important to decide whether you want to go for managed switches that have increased control functions, but are more demanding to install and maintain, or unmanaged switches, ideal for small or medium sized LAN.
Depending on the nature of the application and system architecture, Ethernet might not be the best solution, despite its popularity. Deciding which networking technology to implement requires careful research and planning; this is why it is often easier to consult an experienced supplier rather than going it alone.
An integrated approach
Despite their futuristic graces, smart factories still rely on traditional manufacturing equipment, from modular I/O systems, actuators and sensors to connectors.
Most global industrial automation specialists offer an impressive range of products for manufacturing environments. Most existing factories already feature interconnect equipment from the likes of Hirschmann, Amphenol, Lumberg and Bulgin. With such a wide range of technologies on the same shop floor, compatibility and connectivity are critical.
The reality is that very few manufacturers will have the budget and audacity to completely transform their manufacturing facilities into smart factories overnight. The more likely solution is a mixture of older generation equipment and a slow implementation of new generation equipment – from motors, drives, sensors, PLCs and human machine interfaces (HMIs) to new, more intelligent technologies, like robots, 3D printers or contactless inspection and measurement equipment.
For these reasons, a knowledgeable partner that can provide total industrial connectivity solutions is essential when introducing new automation equipment to a manufacturing environment. Industrial connectivity experts can quickly analyse existing manufacturing systems and recommend ways of making them smarter, more flexible and energy efficient. Unlike the human brain – which sometimes plays tricks on us – industrial automation should be a field dominated by rational, well-planned decisions.
Written by Paul Carr, Managing Director of Electroustic Ltd, UK. Adapted to World Cement’s house style.
Read the article online at: https://www.worldcement.com/special-reports/06012015/the-transition-to-smart-factories-90/