Brave new future of industrial automation is already here
New Delhi : First they made robots to do repetitive work in assembly lines; then they made the robots smarter. Now every part of the industrial process -- from wiring to final quality check -- has been imbued with intelligence.
Welcome to the brave new world of industrial automation.
The automation world is facing a manpower crisis. There are not enough trained young staff to replace the retiring maintenance workers in factories in the United States.
"The last recession did not allow many companies to invest in maintenance staff, so knowledge is walking out of the factory doors with every person retiring," said Bill Martin, Programme Manager, Networked Components at Rockwell Automation.
The answer: Technology is stepping in. "The latest devices that are being introduced on the factory floor can make a lot of information available on each and every component and can store this data in computing devices," added Martin, which can then be availed of by untrained staff to complete maintenance and manage downtime of machines.
Martin was sharing details of how technology was reaching every aspect of the factory floor to a group of visiting journalists at the "Automation Fair 2018" organised by Rockwell in Philadelphia last week.
Rockwell, with sales of $6.7 billion, is the world's largest industrial automation company and has 23,000 employees and a presence in 80 countries.
"The next wave of industrial revolution would make manufacturing much more efficient and intelligent. For that, you need to have smart machines, for which data needs to come from somewhere. It comes from the devices that control the basics in an industrial facility," noted Martin.
The DeviceLogix technology -- a platform-independent logic engine -- is embedded in Rockwell devices, such as push button stations, I/O blocks, motor starters and drives.
Take the example of the latest variable frequency drive which controls motors at the heart of most factories' functioning.
"Motor failures lead to extensive downtimes, which are costly. The built-in diagnostic feature not only avoids costly failures but also provides predictive maintenance. A powerflex drive typically monitors real-time data and helps you predict when a critical component needs to be replaced. It is also prescriptive," informed Nisha Chandrasekharan, Global Portfolio Manager at Rockwell.
Paul Whitney, Market Development Manager, Integrated Architecture, explained that several innovative ideas were in the pipeline at Rockwell, in partnership with PTC -- an augmented reality (AR) and IoT solutions provider -- and Microsoft, some of which may or may not become final products. Rockwell entered into an equity relationship with PTC a few months ago.
Whitney said AR was the latest technology which was being adopted at the factory floor level. AR devices, worn on the eyes, would, in future, be replaced by glasses adapted for industrial use -- something like an advanced Google Glass -- to look at which part of machines are likely to give trouble in future, blending the physical and digital worlds.
"The glasses would also tell you where you can safely move on a factory floor. There would be virtual yellow lines where your entry would slow down a machine and red lines where it would stop, enhancing physical safety of workers," said Whitney.
"Working through AR on an iPad is already a reality," explained Patti Vivolo, Commercial Programme Manager, Integrated Architecture at Rockwell. She took the journalists through a mock-up brewery where the mixing, filling and packaging were all done automatically with "Vuphoria" software from PTC, helping keep track through AR.
The software can also provide the visual manual for setting up a plant and track wear and tear of parts, providing predictive maintenance.
The 3D lenses on the packaging floor ensure that if anything goes amiss, for example one beer can in a six-pack, the alert goes out to the manager and the package is taken out of the assembly line for rectification.
Rockwell innovates internally but also is always on the lookout for promising technologies brought out by companies. It buys the companies and adapts and develops the technologies to offer clients complete systems.
Partnership with PTC earlier this year was a major step forward in using AR and IoT tech. "Rockwell also uses its own tech internally, like eating your own cookies," said Mark Galant, Senior Director Marketing, IoT Manufacturing Solutions at PTC.
"People talk of integration of software, but we at Rockwell are also integrating the strong cultures between the two companies. Teams have been working together to offer clients the ability to innovate," noted Paula D. Puess, Global Market Development Manager at Rockwell Software. "It's all about delivering value," she added.
According to Galant, many of Rockwell's clients have seen a 6-8 per cent jump in efficiency by using their hardware and systems, especially in the food and beverage industry. "For a big company, that would mean they don't have to build that many more factories," he said.
So, once you have made parts and machines smart, where do you go from there?
"First dumb machines became smart, then software became even smarter and then smart machines were put together to make factory-wide systems. The future would be all systems talking to other major systems -- or a system of systems. Something like a multi-Cloud architecture," informed Galant.
"We have reached the top of the chasm where a big leap would be taken. Only a handful of companies in automation would take that leap, not hundreds. We at Rockwell and PTC will be among them," added Puess.
(Hardev Sanotra attended Automation Fair 2018 on an invitation by Rockwell Automation. He can be reached at email@example.com)