Automation as it is deployed (i.e., PLCs, HMI/SCADA, Material Handling Systems, Robots, CNCs, etc.) are ignored opportunities for innovative information technology. The scope of deployment has been at the machine level driving high degrees of efficiency gains in mechanical automation but has sadly ignored opportunities for innovative information technology.
Unfortunately, the created data from these deployments largely remains locked within the mechanical automation systems with low levels of data available for IT (and even lower levels of digital intelligence).
This is in direct contrast to Process Industry companies, like Amazon, where the deployment of automation has evolved very differently. Process industries commonly use Distributed Control Systems (DCS), which are broad-based, process-wide automation systems; these systems often include tens of thousands of IOs and many connected assets, instruments, and sensors, all streaming into centralized databases.
This has enabled a whole host of data-centric modeling, simulation, and optimization tools that are now available but are met with resistance due to traditional thinking that is still widely prevalent in the manufacturing industry. It is time for Sr. Management to invest in new technologies that will rapidly accelerate improvements in throughput, quality, and warranty performance. Tools such as Advanced Predictive Control (APC) and other Plant Floor Intelligence solutions that enable faster and more accurate decisions during problem-solving.
As discrete manufacturers move into the Industry 4.0 era and embrace the Industrial Internet of Things IIOT and associated technologies, the focus must be on Integration. Previous IT investments can be integrated into a broader, more comprehensive strategy in combination with IT-focused PLC programming going forward. Tech companies are developing powerful technologies that leverage legacy IT systems by incorporating them into a more comprehensive, wholistic Industry 4.0 strategy.
Unfortunately, discrete manufacturing, including companies in automotive, aerospace, metal forming, injection molding, and more, have not yet learned these lessons and have fallen behind other global industries already leveraging the vast opportunities afforded by the ongoing digital transformation taking place around the globe. The key to real digital transformation is to take it one step at a time. No major transformation happens instantly! If you are not connected, the first step is to get connected. If you are already connected, the next step is to select a line within your factory, deploy one of the many Industry 4.0 solutions out there and experience the impact of digital transformation on a limited scope project.
Capture baseline performance before the deployment, and carefully measure the impact of Industry 4.0 real-time visibility and intelligent analytics. Quantifiable return-on-investment, when actually realized, will easily justify expanding the strategy throughout the rest of the factory at a pace where the returns exceed the spend, which makes the digital transformation, an investment in your future, not just another expense.
The key is to get started! Do your homework, select a technology that fits your processes, and join the many progressive thinkers that are leading the industry to a more productive, transparent, and predictive manufacturing strategy.
By Jeff Trumble, CEO & President